Future forged by moonlight

The Lunar Men
September 27, 2002

Travelling home after hours spent talking, eating and drinking with friends had to be planned as carefully in the 18th century as it must be now, but for rather different reasons. About a dozen men living and working in the Midlands in the 1770s began to meet monthly at each other's houses. They met on the Monday nearest the full moon in order to have a good chance of some light to guide them when riding home.

Known as the Lunar Society, they had a wide range of interests that they debated and argued about, sometimes performing experiments to settle a dispute about the natural world or to solve a technical problem. For decades they met when they could and wrote to one another when they were apart. In general they were Whiggish, dissenting, optimistic and confident in their power to shape the future. Despite some marked exceptions to these broad characteristics, their mutual friendships were strong enough to withstand fierce arguments and heartfelt disagreements among them.

By bringing together experimental science, technical innovation and political and business acumen, the Lunar Men individually and in partnerships started the industrialisation of Britain. Matthew Boulton began by making buttons and buckles in Birmingham; Josiah Wedgwood came from a family of Staffordshire potters; John Whitehurst, geologist, made scientific instruments and clocks in Derby; William Small, physician and academic natural philosopher, had taught Thomas Jefferson in Virginia; Richard Edgeworth was an Anglo-Irish inventor and Rousseauian; Thomas Day, another Rousseauian, was an unworldly, wealthy anti-slaver; James Watt from Greenock made steam engines and built canals; good-humoured James Keir from Edinburgh was an industrial chemist; William Withering, Anglican and Linnaean classifier, worked as a physician at Stafford Infirmary; Joseph Priestley, chemist, was a fast-talking dissenting preacher from Liverpool; Samuel Galton, a wealthy Quaker, had his own laboratory; and at the centre of the network was Erasmus Darwin, physician, versifier and liberal dispenser of advice and opium (and grandfather of Charles). Characterising the Lunar Men in such a way gives only an indication of their diverse natures, origins and interests.

Anyone who writes an account of the lives of exceptionally able men, whose activities ranged across the political, industrial, philosophical, scientific, literary, technological and medical life in the second half of the 18th century, should ensure that the outcome is something more than a collection of disconnected episodes. In a time of increasing specialisation, it is almost impossible for any one author to deal adequately with the diverse topics within which the Lunar Men found a coherence of thought and action that now eludes us. Jenny Uglow gives a phenomenal amount of detail about the lives of men in whom she is very interested. She probably quite likes them, too - otherwise, her visits to the places where they lived and worked, and the wide reading of primary and secondary sources that she has undertaken, would have been too onerous to take on. Unless, that is, she had a particular academic point to make or fashionable line of argument to pursue. If she had such an aim, it is subtly delivered. The word Enlightenment does not appear in the index, and hardly at all in the text. Nevertheless, the academically ambitious will find here a rich source of primary and secondary material to put beneath a steam-hammer of methodical analysis for stamping out theses.

Uglow has chosen to structure her narrative more or less chronologically in four parts corresponding to the last four decades of the 18th century (nicely named after the four phases of the moon). Each quarter has about ten separate sections, each section dealing with a particular topic:

"Steam", "They build canals", "Plants and passions" and "Family and feeling" are typical. Uglow erects the relevant social or scientific scenery, brings on a cast of a few Lunar Men and supporting players and tells a story about making a geological map of Derbyshire, or the avoidance of bankruptcy by borrowing or marrying money, or the lobbying of Parliament to change patent law, or how Erasmus Darwin was probably responsible for Coleridge's addiction. Lunar Men enter and leave the stage according to the way their lives intersected and diverged in space and time. They are seen taking sides over the American war of independence, making new markets for steam engines, arguing about phlogiston and the linguistic necessities of the new French chemistry, publishing verse about the sex lives of plants and devising new ceramic glazes. Lunar wives and relationships between the Lunar children are presented, and crucial characters outside the group - such as Benjamin Franklin, John "Iron-Mad" Wilkinson and the Trevithicks - come to the fore at times and play their part.

All this sounds very much like a variety show, or simply one damn thing after another; but the cumulative effect is what matters. While the lives of the Lunar Men come before us in vivid detail, an undertow of passing time flows beneath the actions of the moment. The narrative pace slows only as the main characters grow old and die. At the end, Uglow leaves us with a strong sense of the vigour and clamour of useful lives that are now ended. She has written interestingly and knowledgeably for more than 500 pages about myriad characters and topics without mystifying the general reader or raising unduly the eyebrows of specialists. References are extensive, the index effective, the chronology useful and illustrations plentiful.

Michael Cooper is emeritus professor of engineering surveying, City University London.

The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future

Author - Jenny Uglow
ISBN - 0 571 19647 0
Publisher - Faber
Price - £25.00
Pages - 588

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