Great Feuds in Technology: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever


If someone were to ask you who invented the miner's safety lamp, you'd probably have no trouble answering "I don't know." But what about the telegraph? The automobile? The airplane? Television? Conflicting claims over the answers to these questions have led to some of the longest and most bitter battles in the history of technology. Great Feuds in Technology takes a close look at each of these celebrated disputes and reveals that the answers are far more complex, entertaining, and enlightening than you might ever...
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If someone were to ask you who invented the miner's safety lamp, you'd probably have no trouble answering "I don't know." But what about the telegraph? The automobile? The airplane? Television? Conflicting claims over the answers to these questions have led to some of the longest and most bitter battles in the history of technology. Great Feuds in Technology takes a close look at each of these celebrated disputes and reveals that the answers are far more complex, entertaining, and enlightening than you might ever imagine. In this book, you'll discover how the use of new technologies sparked years of violence among the Luddites in nineteenth-century England; why Thomas Edison lost the biggest battle of his career -- which may explain why we have regional blackouts today; and how one small, rude, and brilliant admiral flogged the United States Navy into creating, first, nuclear submarines, and later an entire nuclear fleet. You'll also learn the true story behind the race to map the human genome and meet the man who has spent most of his adult life fighting the commercial use of genetically modified organisms.

Great Feuds in Technology features lively accounts of unusual personalities and their heated battles, as well as wonderfully clear descriptions of the technologies in question, how they were developed, and how they changed the world. These lively, informative, and fair-minded accounts also reveal how these disputes have shaped the way technology is used, how patents are granted and administered, and how new technologies have affected the economy, work and social life, politics, and more. Complete with a thoughtful analysis of recent developments in the anti-technology movement and their impact on our social and technological future, Great Feuds in Technology offers lively, informative, and enlightening reading, whether you're a technophile, a technophobe, a history and biography enthusiast, or just someone who enjoys a good fight.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Hellman does a good job of putting them [inventions] into a commercial context. The book works well as a reference…” (Focus, June 2004)

“… lively and compelling…” (New Scientist, 15 May 2004)

“… a bright idea…” (The Guardian, 20 May 2004)

"...entertaining new book..." (Sunday Telegraph, 28 March 2004)

"There's nothing like a good feud to grab your attention. When it comes to describing the battle, Hellman is a master."(New Scientist)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780756799564
  • Publisher: DIANE Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 2/28/2006
  • Pages: 248

Meet the Author

HAL HELLMAN is the author of Great Feuds in Science and Great Feuds in Medicine, and numerous other books. He has published articles in the New York Times, Omni, Reader’s Digest, Psychology Today, and Geo. He has taught science writing at New York University and has been a writing instructor at Fordham and Fairleigh Dickinson Universities.
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Read an Excerpt

Great Feuds in Technology

Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever
By Hal Hellman

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-20867-1

Chapter One

Ned Ludd versus the Industrial Revolution


Are Machines the Problem?

Sherwood Forest. Who does not associate Sherwood Forest with Robin Hood-that legendary, daring hero of medieval England?

Though he was always on the wrong side of the law, he invariably is seen as heroic; for although he and his "Merry Band" stole from the rich, it was, says the thirteenth-century legend, so that he could give to the poor. Members of his band, including Little John, Friar Tuck, and the gentle, lovely Maid Marian, also achieved fame.

Seven hundred years later, another legendary character, Ned Ludd, emerged from Sherwood Forest. There are surprising similarities between Robin Hood's Merry Band and Ned Ludd's group, collectively called Luddites, but also some important differences. There is, for example, no love interest. More important, the Luddites were no Merry Band. Theirs was serious business. In fact, they were all about business, though from a decidedly negative point of view.

A Volcanic Eruption

The Luddite saga begins March 11, 1811, in Nottingham, a small town that was not far from Robin Hood's base of operations in Sherwood Forest. It was now, however, an important center for the production of cotton hosiery and lace, and throughout that winter day, framework knitters streamed in fromtheir homes and workshops in the surrounding countryside, where they had been operating their hand looms for years.

Ironically, speeded-up and power-driven equipment, including power looms, wide stocking frames, and knitting machines, had been entering the textile industry for several decades, mostly without incident. But recent trade problems had led the owners to decrease payments for the work, and this, combined with the rising cost of food, was driving the workers into poverty and starvation. All of this had brought matters to a head at Nottingham, and the disgruntled workers were complaining to the sympathetic townspeople; but they directed their complaints mainly against the owners they worked for, who both underpaid them and called for "cut-up" stockings. These were knitted in wide sheets, then cut up and sewn into stocking form. Inferior in quality to true knitted stockings, they not only were cheaper but could be made using unskilled labor and the (more expensive) type of stocking loom called a wide machine.

Feelings ran high, and the men demanded that something be done. A variety of "authorities," mainly dragoons from the Crown but also hired hands paid by the owners, ranged the streets and tried to maintain order. At about 9 P.M., the crowd finally dispersed, at which point the townspeople and the owners heaved a sigh of relief.

But the real trouble was about to begin. The unhappy workers, taking a leaf out of Robin Hood's book, had simply disappeared into the darkness. A particularly unhappy group marched to nearby Arnold, and in the dead of night, proceeded to break into homes containing the hated machines that had been rented from the offending owners. By daylight, some sixty large stocking frames had been destroyed.

The explosive release of anger continued over the following weeks. It was strike by surprise, then disappear into the night. The owners, so spread out that they had no way to "circle the wagons," found it difficult-in most cases, impossible-to defend against the raids, which could occur almost anywhere and anytime, sometimes even during the day. Often the raiders attacked in several different areas in the same night. It's important to note that, at least in the early stages, they targeted specific owners, and specific machines.

Throughout, the aggrieved workers knew they had to explain their actions. Aside from verbal complaints to anyone who would listen, these explanations came mainly in the form of written notices to offending parties and/or proclamations aimed at the public and at the Crown. All were signed by "Ned Ludd," or sometimes "General Ludd," or even "King Ludd." The group apparently took the name from a story often told in the area about a young man called Ned Ludlam. There were many different versions.

In one version, he was an apprentice knitter and perhaps of weak intellect. One day he was ordered by his father to get on with his work. Responding in a fury, he grabbed a hammer and smashed his frame into pieces. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1964) describes him as insane. In a different version of the story in the 1902 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, he was the butt of boys' pranks in the village, and on one fateful day he pursued one of his tormenters into a home that housed two of the frames used in manufacturing stockings. Not able to catch the boy, he took out his anger on the frames.

Though, as with Robin Hood, there is little hard evidence of a real person by the name Ned Ludd, no one doubts that his followers were real. Over the two years following the opening foray in March 1811, the various Luddite raiding groups-apparently well organized and disciplined-caused widespread damage to machines and property, amounting to over 100,000 pounds, an enormous sum in that time.

As 1811 wore on, trade continued to worsen, and farmers experienced a poor harvest, leading to still higher food costs. Though some owners did raise their payments, it was nowhere near enough. By November of that year, the raids had become even more virulent, and the raiders began to take on the mien of an organized band. Led by someone-it has never become clear who-they set off on November 10 for Bulwell and the factory of Edward Hollingsworth, an owner particularly hated by the knitters. Though Hollingsworth had expected trouble and had tried to fortify his factory, the ferocity, organization, and effectiveness of the raid caught him by surprise. In the confusion, there were shots, and a Luddite, John Westley, was killed. Nevertheless, the group overran the defenders, did their damage, then quietly dispersed and disappeared into the darkness.

It was the first death resulting from the riots, but far from the last.

In the early months of 1812, the raids slackened. E. P. Thompson, in his classic The Making of the English Working Class, says the attackers did see some success. Many hosiers agreed to pay higher prices. The government had stationed several thousand troops in the area, however, and a bill to make frame-breaking a capital crime was put forth in Parliament.


Even as the rioting quieted down in the Nottinghamshire area, it began to spread to other parts of the textile manufacturing areas to the north, including Yorkshire, a wool center, and Lancashire, which specialized in cotton.

The Yorkshire area saw a particularly bloody confrontation, in word, action, and reaction. William Horsfall, a local textile mill owner, refused to be intimidated and swore he would ride "up to his saddle girths in Luddite blood." Horsfall was busily installing new equipment in his mill at Rawfolds. This consisted mainly of power-driven shears that could easily quadruple the output of the cropper's traditional heavy handheld shears. (Traditional shears-which could weigh up to fifty or sixty pounds-were used to cut off projecting threads and fibers, called the nap, from the finished cloth. The croppers who wielded them were a well-paid and proud group.) Horsfall knew he was a major target, and fortified his mill accordingly-including mounting a cannon in the building, barricading the stairs with spiked rollers, and placing a tub of oil of vitriol (a highly caustic substance) at the top.

Sure enough, a major attack was mounted on April 27, 1812. A force of around 150 men, perhaps more, wielding hatchets, heavy hammers, and guns, attempted to enter by battering down the door, breaking windows, and any other means possible. But Horsfall had done his job well. The attack failed, and eventually the raiders dispersed. But in the attempt, shots were fired by both sides, and two Luddites were killed. The Luddites vowed revenge, and not long after, Horsfall was assassinated while riding his horse along a deserted route.

For several months, despite the widespread employment of government spies along with the presence of some four thousand troops in the area, not one of the Rawfolds attackers was brought up on charges. It was an astonishing show of sympathy by the community. It was also, however, partly a fear of reprisal from the Luddites.

But the government was upping the ante. On December 10, 1812, for example, the county of Leicester issued a "Caution" against all persons engaged in the crime of frame-breaking: "Every person forcibly entering a house in night time, with intent to break a frame, and every person in any manner aiding or assisting others in so doing, is guilty of burglary, which is punishable by DEATH."

Part of the reason for the curious (to our eyes) connection with burglary has to do with the participation of outsiders (non-Luddites) who, looking to cash in on the raiders' rage, engaged in looting. Later riots, particularly in the north, saw even more of this, despite the fact that burglary was indeed often punishable by execution.

Still, smashing machines or other property was one thing. Even deaths during battle could be swallowed. But the assassination of a defenseless man, even one as hated as Horsfall, was another matter. Eventually, and for the first time, information was given that led to the arrest and conviction of some of the perpetrators. This was the first major break, and it led to an additional series of arrests in the three major regions involved. These included some Luddite ringleaders, all of whom were tried before a special commission at York Castle in January 1813. Twenty-four men were judged guilty, and seventeen were executed. Others were transported to Australia. Unhappily, the situation of those who did give information was often as pitiful as those who were condemned. This included constant fear of reprisals, including ostracism, which in those tightly knit communities was a serious matter.

Though the Luddites continued their attacks, new machines continued to be introduced in the Yorkshire area, and the number of croppers-once an independent, tough, respected group-dropped from more than 1,700 to just a few in five years. The croppers, says Thompson, came closest to the popular image of the Luddite: "They were in direct conflict with machinery which both they and their employers knew perfectly well would displace them."

A Difficult Time

What could have brought the Luddites-generally law-abiding, God-fearing citizens-to such a state of anger? Textile manufacture had played an important role in England's commercial success, in both domestic and world trade. And at the turn of the eighteenth century, most of the manufacturing had still been done by these independent operators. The system had worked well for many years; but by the time of the Luddite activities, a variety of factors had led to a serious decline in the fortunes of the workers. Arapid increase in population in the previous decades had led to more dependence on foreign markets. But wars, including a drawn-out series with France, and increasingly annoyed American reactions to British economic and maritime policies, had led to serious disruptions in the flow of goods. By 1810, the American Congress already included a group called the war hawks who were calling for war against England. By then the United States had become Britain's single largest customer for its products, which made this loss particularly bitter. From October 1810 to March 1811, a million pounds of woolen cloth, manufactured in the north and intended for the American market, had accumulated, unusable and unsalable. All of this had contributed to a serious economic depression. An especially cold winter had added to the workers' problems.

A change in the landholding policies of the country also prevented the workers from carrying out part-time agriculture on pieces of common land, which in the past had helped feed and even clothe them in times of need.

At the same time, the owners were trying out a new kind of production. Leading eventually to what we now know as industrial production methods, it promised economies of scale and efficiency for the owners, but it seemed highly threatening to the workers. Finally, there were, of course, unscrupulous manufacturers who added to the trouble by using a variety of means to take advantage of their position: one method was to defraud the workers, say, in company stores; another was to employ "colts," or unapprenticed workmen, at lower wages; a third method, and one that particularly galled the proud handworkers, was to manufacture inferior goods to bring prices down and increase sales.

All of these factors conspired to make life increasingly difficult for the independent operators. Their situation, in fact, combined the economic risk of the entrepreneur with the powerlessness of the serf; they had the worst of both worlds. Cost of food and raw materials was increasing; need for their labor, decreasing.

Although some of the owner/manufacturers had been willing to at least try to help the knitters, an obstinate core of owners who, used to exercising almost total control, resented the workers' "uppityness." These owners had resolved to hold fast and in some cases even to reduce payments to their workers.

The result was that many of the workers were already in deep financial trouble. In early nineteenth-century England, this meant loss of homes, starvation, and anything else that comes with poverty; for in those days, there were no governmental safety nets such as we know today in Western countries. Malcolm I. Thomis, a British historian who wrote a groundbreaking book on the Luddites, spells out the situation: "The workers had so little cushion that a doubling in price of oats in the northern diet put hundreds of thousands in a state of desperation.... In May 1812, an ironical correspondent suggested in the local press that the present troubles might be cured if doctors would only get together to find out how appetite might be eliminated."

There was also a social factor. As late as 1818, a cotton spinner said, "I know it to be a fact, that the greater part of the master spinners are anxious to keep wages low for the purpose of keeping the spinners indigent and spiritless ... [as much as] for the purpose of taking the surplus into their own pockets." He added that the textile worker "cannot travel and get work in any town like a shoe-maker, joiner, or taylor; he is confined to the district."


Excerpted from Great Feuds in Technology by Hal Hellman Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Ned Ludd versus the Industrial Revolution: Are Machines the Problem? 5
2 Davy versus Stephenson: Who Invented the Miner's Safety Lamp? 19
3 Morse versus Jackson and Henry: The Electromagnetic Telegraph 39
4 Edison versus Westinghouse: The AC/DC War 59
5 Ford versus Selden and ALAM: Automobile Manufacturing 77
6 Wright Brothers versus Curtiss, Chanute, Ader, Whitehead, and Others: The First Successful Flying Machine 97
7 Sarnoff versus Farnsworth: The Fathers of Television 119
8 Rickover versus Zumwalt (and Just about Everyone Else): Nuclear Submarines and a Nuclear Navy 139
9 Venter versus Collins: Decoding the Human Genome 155
10 Rifkin versus the Monsanto Company: Battling the Biotech World 173
Epilogue 203
Notes 207
Bibliography 221
Index 239
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2004

    Hellman does it again

    In keeping with the tone and enjoyment of his other 'Great Feuds' books, Hal Hellman has again tested our imagination. Presenting compelling arguments for some not always popular opinions, Hellman keeps us turning pages to learn more. I cannot wait for the enxt 'Feud' book.

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