The expression “wrench in the gears” comes from the Luddite movement in Britain in the early 19th century. Ever larger, more complicated looms were being built, putting skilled artisans out of a job in favor of cheaper, unskilled labor. The machines did all the work a human had once done, only faster. Protests began.
English Industry was not sympathetic. Desperate, some of the Luddites took to sabotaging the machines, breaking their frames or throwing wrenches into the looms’ inner workings. Riots broke out across England as the Luddites gained followers and threatened the very stability of the national economy. The military was dispatched to put down the instigators.
One such confrontation took place at Burton’s Mill in Middleton. The Luddites drew back into the mill itself as the army advanced. In their haste to escape, several Luddites fell into the colossal machines and found to their horror that wrenches are considerably tougher than human bones. The mill ground the unlucky Luddites into a red stain. The Burton Mill, after the incident, went on to break record outputs every month, as if the machines themselves were working faster.
The government began arresting the Luddites in bulk, publicly executing the leaders and shipping the rest to internment camps to serve out their sentences. Few were ever seen again. Britain’s looms grew and textiles boomed as the Luddite movement was stamped out. When the old mills were finally torn down, decades later, the red-stained wood and iron seemed to be working even when unmanned, grinding away in hushed whispers.
It is perhaps appropriate that they used wrenches to break down the old mills.