The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World

by Jenny Uglow, Jenny Uglow, Jennifer S. Uglow

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From the celebrated author of Hogarth — An animated, swarming group portrait of the friends who launched the industrial revolution.

In the 1760s a group of amateur experimenters met and made friends in the English Midlands. Most came from humble families, all lived far from the center of things, but they were young and their optimism was

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From the celebrated author of Hogarth — An animated, swarming group portrait of the friends who launched the industrial revolution.

In the 1760s a group of amateur experimenters met and made friends in the English Midlands. Most came from humble families, all lived far from the center of things, but they were young and their optimism was boundless: together they would change the world. Among them were the ambitious toy maker Matthew Boulton and his partner James Watt, of steam-engine fame; the potter Josiah Wedgwood; the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, inventor, and theorist of evolution (a forerunner of his grandson Charles). Later came Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen and fighting radical.

With a small band of allies they formed the Lunar Society of Birmingham (so called because it met at each full moon) and kick-started the Industrial Revolution. Blending science, art, and commerce, the Lunar Men built canals; launched balloons; named plants, gases, and minerals; changed the face of England and the china in its drawing rooms; and plotted to revolutionize its soul.

Uglow's vivid, exhilarating account uncovers the friendships, political passions, love affairs, and love of knowledge (and power) that drove these extraordinary men. It echoes to the thud of pistons and the wheeze and snort of engines, and brings to life the tradesmen, artisans, and tycoons who shaped and fired the modern age.

Jenny Uglow is an editor at Chatto & Windus and lives in Canterbury, England. Her previous books include Hogarth, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories, and George Eliot.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This hefty volume combines prodigious research with an obvious fondness for the subject matter. Uglow, an editor at U.K.'s Chatto & Windus publishing house, garnered praise for her incisive book on the life and images of William Hogarth as well as for her biographies of Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. Here, Uglow details the wild inventions of the 18th century, with the turbulent changes in the Georgian world as backdrop, and so delivers a complete, though at times ponderously detailed, portrait of the men who formed the Lunar Society of Birmingham. The society was a kind of study group for the nascent Industrial Revolution, which would transform England in two generations. Among the lunar men were toy maker Matthew Boulton, James Watt of the steam engine, potter Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen, and physician and evolutionary theorist Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's grandfather. As Uglow writes, its members met on the full moon (to facilitate travel at night), "warmed by wine and friendship, their heads full of air pumps and elements and electrical machines, their ears ringing with talk, the whirring of wheels and the hiss of gas." Each was accomplished in his profession, and yet each applied boundless reserves of energy and inventiveness to outside interests, from the practical, such as canal-building, herbal medicines and steam-propelled water pumps, to the outright bizarre, such as Erasmus Darwin's fantastic mechanical talking mouth. Uglow's writing has great breadth of subject and character-along with the occasional bawdiness, too. (Oct.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Uglow, editor at Chatto & Windus and author of Hogarth: A Life and a World, has written a lively account of a remarkable group of individuals, in 18th-century England, when men's clubs proliferated. The clubs not only offered a forum in which individuals with like interests could gather for discussion, but members offered each other physical protection afterward when they left the coffee house, tavern, or private home that served as their meeting place. In the 1760s, in the English Midlands, a group of amateur experimenters came together to form a club called the Lunar Society of Birmingham-so-called because the club met at each full moon. The members included James Watt, inventor of the steam engine; Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin and an inventor and evolutionary theorist in his own right; Josiah Wedgwood, the potter; Joseph Priestly, discoverer of oxygen; Matthew Boulton, the toymaker; and others who would make remarkable contributions to science and industry. The author makes a convincing case for the importance of this talented group, whose efforts, especially James Watt's work with steam engines, would help kickstart the Industrial Revolution. Although the publisher compares this multiple biography with Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, the Lunar Society men bore greater resemblance to capitalist doers than philosophers. This work is recommended for public and academic libraries.-Robert J. Andrews, Duluth P.L., MN
From the Publisher

“A remarkable story of remarkable men, richly detailed and brilliantly told.” —Paul S. Seaver, The New York Times Book Review

“An absolute wonder of a book.” —The Economist

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Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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6.38(w) x 9.76(h) x 1.83(d)

Read an Excerpt

'O! pray! move on, Sir, said she,
this is amazingly fine: I fancy
myself traveling along with that
little earth in its course round the
gilded Sun . . .'


The earth turns and the curving shadow sweeps round the globe. The sun sets, the moon rises, and all that is familiar feels suddenly strange. In an age before street lights, link-boys carry torches to see city-dwellers home, while in the countryside starlight and moonlight are the only guides. The footpads are out, a darker blackness against shadow, so for safety's sake men walk together when they roll back from the coffee-house, the tavern and the club. And in the eighteenth century clubs are everywhere: clubs for singing, clubs for drinking, clubs for farting; clubs of poets and pudding-makers and politicians. One such gathering of like-minded men is the Lunar Society of Birmingham. They are a small, informal bunch who simply try to meet at each other's houses on the Monday nearest the full moon, to have light to ride home (hence the name) and like other dubs they drink and laugh and argue into the night. But the Lunar men are different — together they nudge their whole society and culture over the threshold of the modern, tilting it irrevocably away from old patterns of life towards the world we know today. That is why I wanted to write about them.

Amid fields and hills the Lunar men build factories, plan canals, make steam-engines thunder. They discover new gases, new minerals and new medicines and propose unsettling new ideas. They create objects of beauty and poetry of bizarre allure. They sail on the crest of the new. Yet their powerhouse of invention is not made up of aristocrats or statesmen or scholars but of provincial manufacturers, professional men and gifted amateurs — friends who meet almost by accident and whose lives overlap until they die.

So who are they?

First to enter is Erasmus Darwin, doctor, inventor, poet and — half a century before his grandson Charles — pioneer of evolution. (Enormously gifted and enormously fat, eventually he has to cut a semi-circle in his dining table to fit his stomach.) Then comes Matthew Boulton, flamboyant chief of the first great 'manufactory' at Soho, just outside Birmingham, followed by his anxious Scottish partner James Watt, of steam-engine fame. Another member is the ambitious young potter Josiah Wedgwood, and eventually, in 1780, Joseph Priestley arrives, the preacher with the stuttering voice and flowing pen, the chemist who isolates oxygen and becomes the visionary leader of Rational Dissent.

This quintet forms the core. But around them weave other stories, a string of names that take on shape as they turn up in their top-coats and breeches, driving newfangled carriages, talking of freedom, of riots and reform, love and laughing-gas. Among them are the Scots chemist James Keir, reliable as a rock; the clock maker John Whitehurst, who works with minutes but dreams of millennia, the age of the earth itself. Then come the doctors: the diplomatic William Small who seals their early friendships, and the austere William Withering, who brings digitalis into mainstream medicine. And a wilder note sounds with the arrival of two young, idealistic followers of Rousseau, Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Thomas Day.

Ten of these men became Fellows of the Royal Society but only a few had a university education and most were. Nonconformists or free-thinkers. This placed them outside the Establishment — an apparent disadvantage which proved a real strength, since they were unhampered by old traditions of deference and stuffy institutions. They came from varied backgrounds but when they edged towards rows they agreed to differ, turning back to the things they shared. 'We had nothing to do with the religious or political principles of each other,' wrote Priestley. 'We were united by a common love of science, which we thought sufficient to bring together persons of all distinctions, Christians, Jews, Mohametans, and Heathens, Monarchists and Republicans.' Like a living unit, the group stretched to encompass the awkward and odd: only rarely was there an absolute impasse. Their passionate common exchange and endeavour was of a type that would never be possible again — until today, with the fast, collaborative intimacy of the Internet.

To begin with they came together simply through the pleasure of playing with experiments, what Darwin called 'a little philosophical laughing'. They caught at discoveries with delight, sure that every find could help them to crack the elusive codes of nature. And Nature, on every hand, offered herself for investigation. The great vogue for collecting that had grown through the previous century now reached new peaks. Sometimes the collections were 'evidence' in an argument, like the unsurpassed collection of minerals and fossils amassed at the start of the century by geologist John Woodward, to prove the revolutionary thesis that fossils were indeed the remains of ancient organisms, not patterns in rocks, or mysterious designs placed there by God. At other times, the whole of the natural world suddenly became 'collectible', as if knowledge were conveyed directly, visibly, tangibly by the objects in a cabinet of curiosities. When Peter the Great asked the philosopher Leibniz in 1708 what he should collect, the answer, it seemed, was 'everything':

Such a cabinet should contain all significant things and rarities created by nature and man. Particularly needed are stones, metals, minerals, wild plants, and their artificial copies, animals both stuffed and preserved . . . Foreign works to be acquired should include diverse books, instruments, curiosities and rarities . . . In short, all that could enlighten and please the eye.

However, Peter's daughter-in-law Catherine the Great (another great collector) disparaged this old, baroque style of freakish accretion: 'I often quarrelled with him', she wrote, 'about his wish to enclose Nature in a cabinet — even a huge palace could not hold Her.

Nature would not be confined. In the mid-eighteenth century, across Europe, in Britain and in America, ordering the vast and complex riches of Nature became a priority. This was the age of great scientific expeditions. When the naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander travelled with Captain Cook on his voyage to the South Seas from 1768 to 1771, they brought back 1,000 new species of plants, 500 fish, 500 bird skins, numberless insects and hundreds of drawings. It was against this background that Erasmus Darwin translated Linnaeus, wrote his epic poem The Botanic Garden and developed his own controversial theories of evolution.

In exploring such matters Darwin and his friends were part of the great spread of interest in science that extended from the King and the Royal Society to country clergymen and cotton-spinners. When people talk of eighteenth-century culture this is the swathe that is often missed out: the smart crowds thronging to electrical demonstrations; the squires fussing over rainfall gauges; the duchesses collecting shells and the boys making fire-balloons; the mothers teaching their children from the new encyclopaedias with their marvellous engraved plates of strange animals and birds and plants.

Science was popular because it was 'gentlemanly' and cultured, and like all crazes it produced its share of jokes. But it was also a great spur to industry, helping Britain to surge ahead of other European nations. As professors and savants brought their improved mathematics and theoretical knowledge of chemistry, minerals, heat or hydraulics to bear on the ad-hoc wisdom of old crafts, so the artisans developed new processes and technologies at an astonishingly accelerated rate. The manufacturers among the Lunar men pounced on the new findings. Their ambitions were unbounded: 'I hate piddling, you know,' wrote Wedgwood, who also declared that he would 'surprise the World with wonders'.

But the idealists among them, particularly Priestley, wanted to surprise the world in a different way. Their technocratic fix, they thought, could bring paradise on earth: just as chemists could make 'pure' air to cure diseases, so knowledge could light the fuse of democratic change. Anything seemed possible — steamships, manned flight, diving bells. Darwin speculated quite seriously about changing the windflow over Britain, and suggested that European governments, 'instead of destroying their seamen and exhausting their strength in unnecessary wars', should use their navies to tow icebergs to the Equator to cool the tropics and ease the northern winters.

There was no man-made Georgian global warming — but what happened in Britain was dramatic. In two generations, roughly from 1730 to 1800, the country changed from a mainly agricultural nation into an emerging industrial force. By the time these friends died, iron and coal and cotton were king and the provinces no longer looked automatically to London to lead the way. The 'universal ferment' that accompanied this shift was as potent as any political revolution, affecting the lives of millions, opening the way to the factory age, the railway, the forging of empire. Although there was no sudden, sharply datable 'industrial revolution', for all the makers and merchants the late eighteenth century was a cluttered, cut-throat world, different to that which their fathers had known. They now had to appeal to the affluent 'middling classes' who were rushing to buy new domestic goods: clocks, prints, earthenware, curtains and cutlery and carpets. The country was driven to rethink the whole relationship of 'luxury' to culture and such issues were argued over not only by philosophers but also by smart consumers such as Lady Caroline Lennox, who declared stoutly that shopping was not only fun but a 'rational exercise, a commitment to the civilsing powers of trade'.

*Endnotes were omitted.

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Meet the Author

Jenny Uglow is an editor at Chatto & Windus and lives in Canterbury, England. Her previous books include Hogarth, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories, and George Eliot.

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