The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World

Overview

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 toymaker 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 ...

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Overview

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 toymaker 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.

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Editorial Reviews

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

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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374528881
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 10/28/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 608
  • Product dimensions: 5.54 (w) x 8.26 (h) x 1.73 (d)

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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