Lunar men who lit up the world

September 27, 2002

Today's researchers can learn much from the zest, bravado and informality of the 18th-century Lunar Society, argues Jenny Uglow.

The story of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, which flourished from the 1760s until the turn of the century, encapsulates one of the grand narratives of late 18th-century Britain: the links between Enlightenment optimism and the transition to an industry-led economy, combined with passionate arguments over rights and democracy.

The group was small, and the "society" as a formal body hardly existed except for a short time in 1770s and 1780s. Even then, there were no officers, minutes or records, and most surviving correspondence about it consists of excuses for missing the next meeting. This one, from Erasmus Darwin, who was prevented from coming by having to visit some patients, evokes their lively spirit: "Lord, what inventions, what wit, what rhetoric, metaphysical, mechanical and pyrotechnical, will be on the wing, bandy'd like a shuttlecock from one to another of your troop of philosophers! While I, poor I, I by myself I, and jogged, and bustled, and bump'd and bruised along the King's high road, to make war on a pox or a fever!"

Such informality and playfulness were integral to their work together - and is perhaps something all research networks should bear in mind. The society began simply as a group of friends who agreed to meet at each other's houses every month about the time of the full moon so they would have light to ride home by. This was common in an age before streetlights, and there were probably similar societies scattered across the country: but this one would change Britain. As well as Darwin, grandfather of Charles, doctor, poet, inventor and the first coherent exponent of the theory of evolution, the members included Matthew Boulton, the "toymaker" who built the first large-scale factory at Soho near Birmingham, and his partner, James Watt, developer of steam power. Others were Josiah Wedgwood, the potter, and Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen and a leader of Radical Dissent, the Non-conformist movement that fought for the repeal of laws banning its members from universities and official posts. They were joined by John Whitehurst, a Derby clockmaker, who produced a controversial theory of the history of the earth; James Keir, a pioneering industrial chemist; the doctor William Withering, who introduced digitalis into mainstream medicine, and two young followers of Rousseau, Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Thomas Day. Most of these men grew up in the 1730s, when itinerant scientific lecturers were thrilling provincial society: Darwin, Edgeworth, Boulton and Priestley were all enchanted by mechanics as children and indulged in joyful, risky childhood experiments.

The first friendship, in the early 1760s, was between Darwin and Boulton, a good match as Darwin, who had been educated at Cambridge and Edinburgh, had both theoretical genius and speculative imagination, while Boulton, who left school at 14, had hands-on knowledge and entrepreneurial verve. They both knew the slightly older Whitehurst, and it was his friend Benjamin Franklin (a hero to the group) who in 1765 introduced the doctor William Small, a fine mathematician and tactful diplomat. A year later, Keir arrived in the Midlands, along with the volatile, charming, endlessly inventive Edgeworth.

Now knowledge and ideas zig-zagged and sparked across the group. Keir helped Boulton with his metallurgy, Edgeworth made Darwin's futuristic carriage designs a reality, Whitehurst helped with instruments such as barometers and hydrometers, Small with their calculations. Each had his niche, so there was no competition, yet each was ready to share whatever expertise and ideas he had. They were young, speculative, playful and unafraid to make fools of themselves. Something of their intimate, democratic blend of serious research and warm sociability can be felt in the paintings The Orrery and Experiment with an Air Pump , which were produced in this period by their friend the painter Joseph Wright of Derby.

Their first leap into action on a national scale came through Wedgwood, whose pottery works in Burlsem were 40 miles to the north. Wedgwood was a passionate chemist, experimenting in ceramic bodies and glazes. He admired Boulton's works at Soho and would soon found his own manufactory, "Etruria", its classical name suggested by Darwin. His drive to build the Trent and Mersey Canal with James Brindley drew in all the Lunar circle.

In these early years, Watt was a kind of member at a distance. In Glasgow he had been working on improving the efficiency of the standard Newcomen engines, and when he visited Birmingham in 1768, he was dazzled by the advanced technology at Soho. Boulton, keen to acquire steam power, tried to lure him south and eventually, in 1774, they became partners. In the intervening years, Small's letters kept the depressive Watt going. In them, the two discussed everything from plugging valves to the refraction of light, from the composition of metals to new clock designs - a typically Lunar kaleidoscope of interests.

Each new member - or new advance, such as the advent of ballooning - caused a flurry of activity. When Priestley arrived in 1780, for instance, the group helped to fund his research, while Wedgwood provided ceramic equipment and Watt collaborated on vital experiments, such as the race against Lavoisier to discover the composition of water. Not all of them shared Priestley's radicalism, but all believed that their endeavours would change the world for the better. And all, in different ways, extended their belief in "experiment" to their private lives, most notably Edgeworth and Day. They vividly exemplify the creative potential of collaboration and exchange.

But what are the conditions that produce such a fertile, varied body of men, whose collective work pushes national life forward? In the arts, as in the sciences, they are often rebels or outsiders - such as the Lake Poets or the impressionists. But forming a group is itself an experiment, a chemical combination, and the outcome is uncertain, while the reaction between the individuals is also affected by the wider environment, the political temperature, the "pollution" of unexpected variables.

No group operates in a vacuum: to understand the Lunar Society we have to set it among other networks such as the scientific clubs, from the Royal Society downwards, and the international community of natural philosophy. But the Lunar men also drew on networks within the dissenting community, and among groups of artisans and inventors, and artists and patrons. They had different trades and professions, and combined different traditions of knowledge, derived from craft skills, from the new lively colleges providing for non-conformists who were barred from Oxford and Cambridge, from the older universities and, above all, from the modernising ethos of the Edinburgh enlightenment, with its emphasis on the link between research and practical application. Within the group, competition as well as cooperation spurred advances. Formal and informal networks speeded and enriched the information flow, while the commercial drive also pushed research forward.

So much is clear. But is this specific to the period? In the 19th century, tension grew between the ideal of collective work and that of the individual "hero-discoverer", while the notion of intellectual property altered, witnessed by the rise in the number of patents and copyright laws. These changes coincided with the explosion of industry and the Romantic elevation of the "original genius". As knowledge became more specialised - the word scientist was itself coined in 1833 - so the place of the amateur declined.

Perhaps the atmosphere is changing again, with the resurgence of popular science and the idea that invention can be fun (as in the television programme Robot Wars ). Theoretically, too, the internet should be the way to cut across hierarchies, to bring together academics and lay people passionate about particular subjects, replicating the quick-fire exchange of Lunar meetings and the blend of design, technical knowledge and reaching-for-the-moon bravado.

But one outstanding feature remains: the Lunar men remained close and worked together - for more than 35 years - until they died and that is a magic that is perhaps impossible to reproduce.

The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow is published this week by Faber and Faber, £25.00.

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