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BOOKS: The outsiders who made the future by moonlight

The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future

by Jenny Uglow

Faber and Faber, 20

It is nice to know that from time to time the forward motion of civilisation depends not on the exercise of power, or clash of armies, or great solitary leaps of creativity or faith, but stimulating conversation and food and drink. One of these moments was in mid-18th century Edinburgh, when a group of men living in the closes and wynds of the Old Town - David Hume, Lord Kames, James Hutton, William Robertson, Hugh Blair, and from Glasgow Joseph Black and Adam Smith - met regularly to debate and discuss the basic laws governing the human mind, nature, and society. Over glasses of claret and ale and barrels of oysters they engaged in a continuous no-holds-barred dialogue, debating and criticising each other’s ideas, and in the process created the Scottish Enlightenment.

Slightly later and a little further south, in Birmingham, another group of writers, philosophers, businessmen, and polymaths gathered on the Sunday or Monday before each full moon. They too would argue and debate while "the wine flowed ... and the tables were heavy with fish and capons, Cheddar and Stilton, pies and syllabubs," until they finally mounted their horses unsteadily to make their unsteady way home in the moonlight. They called themselves the Lunar Society, and in their range of scientific interests, innovative thinking and entrepreneurial acumen they may even have outstripped their Edinburgh rivals. Certainly, as Jenny Uglow’s sparkling new book shows, their friendships ran deeper, going on to bind together their children and grandchildren (one, Charles Darwin, would marry the grand-niece of his grandfather’s Lunar colleague, Josiah Wedgewood).

No single group of men did more to transform the physical, economic and social landscape of early industrial Britain. Their story has been told several times before, but it is Uglow’s achievement to give these men - "whose interests leapt from subject to subject like grasshoppers in summer" - the charming and energetic treatment they deserve.

The Lunar Men (or "lunaticks" as they enjoyed calling themselves) included Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen; Josiah Wedgewood the potter; iron manufacturer Matthew Boulton and his partner, the inventor of the steam engine, James Watt; Erasmus Darwin, who developed a coherent theory of evolution decades before his grandson Charles attempted the same thing; James Keir the chemist; and agrarian reformer Thomas Edgeworth. They also kept close touch with industrial magnate John Wilkinson, who happened to be Priestley’s brother-in-law, and were partners with the great canal engineer, James Brindley. They were in effect the politburo of the Industrial Revolution, which they believed would also further their own liberal progressive political views. The Lunar Society wanted to improve nature through the application of science and technology, and by so doing improve society as well - and make money for themselves in the process.

As Uglow shows, these optimistic hopes sprang in part from their backgrounds in the Dissenting English Midlands (although three were undeniably Scots: Watt, Keir, and William Small, the Aberdeen-trained natural philosopher who was also a teacher of Thomas Jefferson). Even before 1750, Birmingham, Derby, Sheffield, and Lichfield were the workshops of England. Birmingham was where Quaker and Baptist ironmongers and artisans turned out a variety of metal objects, from sword canes and brass candlesticks to buttons and belt buckles. The generic term for these humble metal products was "toys" and it was out of one of these families of "toymakers" that Matthew Boulton rose to prominence as an iron producer-just as Josiah Wedgewood came from a family that had made ceramic goods in Staffordshire for generations.

But Birmingham "was the place for a man to make a fortune" and the city served as a magnet for all the key members of the Lunar Society, including, in 1780, Joseph Priestley. It became the central hub of this Georgian version of Silicon Valley. They established their first links through their joint venture in the construction of the Trent-Mersey Canal. This was the brainchild of Small and Wedgewood, which would eventually connect Birmingham and the West Midlands producers to Hull and Liverpool.

For a time Doctor Erasmus Darwin’s house in Lichfield served as their meeting place, where Small, Boulton, Edgeworth, Keir and the rest held the first of those "philosophic feasts" which would become the hallmark of later Lunar meetings, and where they discovered how the full and frank exchange of views produced a kind of intellectual synergy, "in which", as Edgeworth put it, "the knowledge of each member of such a society becomes in time disseminated through the whole body ..."

Uglow perfectly captures the spirit of these meetings, and the Lunar Men themselves. Their restless energy, unflagging zeal, and ability to think unconventionally enabled them to cross into each other’s specialities and fields of research. They were interested in everything. They explored new theories and technologies in chemistry, electricity (Benjamin Franklin was virtually an honorary member of the society), biology and botany, astronomy, zoology, geology and mineralogy, physics and hydraulics. Even aeronautics: Erasmus Darwin was the first Englishman to fly a hydrogen balloon.

However - and this distinguishes them from much of later intellectual society - they were not ashamed to be interested in making money. As Matthew Boulton wrote to his partner James Watt: "Let us make hay while the sun shines and gather our barns full before the dark cloud of age lowers upon us." Increasing knowledge and increasing profit went hand in hand. So Boulton’s revolutionary iron "manufactory" at Soho would become the model of the new industrial enterprise, but also a workshop for studying scientific principles, including the science of steam power. Likewise, Josiah Wedgewood’s pottery factory at Etruria not only revolutionized the production of ceramics, but revealed that the future of business lay with middle-class consumers, "which Class", Wedgewood wrote, "we know are vastly, I had almost said, infinitely superior" to the aristocracy and gentry master craftsmen had traditionally served.

Eventually, of course, the techniques Watt, Boulton, and Wedgewood introduced would produce goods cheap enough for the working class as well. More than anyone else, it was the Lunar Men who turned the Industrial Revolution into a "revolution of the everyday," in which ordinary people found themselves presented with a huge variety of durable and (as in the case of Wedgewood’s pottery designs) sometimes beautiful goods at a minimal cost.

It was a victory of Dissenter outsiders over elitist insiders, of provincial energy and innovation over inertia at the centre, and of industry over traditional commercial interests-starkly symbolised when Boulton successfully petitioned Parliament in 1772 to allow Birmingham silver plate, including his own, to be sold in London without the need for a London assayers’ mark.

Their politics were, for their time, equally radical. However, Uglow underplays this aspect of their thought, in part because she realises that whatever influence they may have had on the anti-slavery movement (Thomas Day’s poem "The Dying Negro", which appeared in 1773, was one of the earliest pieces of abolitionist propaganda, as was Wedgewood’s famous anti-slave trade medal) or parliamentary reform (given Priestley’s associations with Richard Price’s London Corresponding Society), the real impact of the Lunar Men was as the architects of industrialised science and society. "They were pioneers of the turnpikes and canals and of the new factory system. They were the group who brought efficient steam power to the nation. They were in the white heat of the drive to catalogue and name plants, to study minerals, to detect and work out the history of the formation of the earth." As Uglow concludes her delightful and absorbing story:

"The legacy of the Lunar Men is with us still, in the making of the modern world, and in the inspiring confidence with which all these friends, in their different ways, reached so eagerly for the moon."

Arthur Herman is the author of The Scottish Enlightenment (4th Estate, 20)

 
 
 

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