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date: 08 March 2021

Lunar Society of Birminghamfree

(act. c. 1765–c. 1800)
  • Jenny Uglow

Lunar Society of Birmingham (act. c. 1765–c. 1800), was a small club of pioneering natural philosophers, doctors, and manufacturers, whose members have been called the fathers of the industrial revolution. It was an informal body with no membership list, officer, or minutes, although an attempt was made in 1775 to lay down a firmer framework. The name was common, since clubs often met monthly near the full moon, providing light to ride home by. The importance of this particular lunar society, however, stems from its pioneering work in experimental chemistry, physics, engineering, and medicine, combined with leadership in manufacturing and commerce and political and social ideals.

The society never numbered more than fourteen. The principal members were the doctor, poet, and inventor Erasmus Darwin, the manufacturer Matthew Boulton, the improver of steam engines James Watt, the potter Josiah Wedgwood, and the chemist and leader of radical dissenters Joseph Priestley. Other important figures were the doctor William Small, the Derby clockmaker, hydraulics expert, and geologist John Whitehurst, and the doctor William Withering, who brought digitalis into mainstream medicine. A more radical note was introduced by two idealistic followers of Rousseau, the voluble, charming, Irish inventor Richard Lovell Edgeworth and the eccentric and wealthy Thomas Day, the author of Sandford and Merton.

The Lunar men came from very different backgrounds, and few had much formal education, yet ten became fellows of the Royal Society. Several were nonconformists and were thus unhampered by traditional hierarchies, able to build their own wide networks with links to the new dissenting academies. Barred from attending Oxford and Cambridge, many dissenters studied in Holland, France, or Scotland, and the academies that they established in England after their return adopted a wide-ranging, progressive curriculum specializing in science. The members of the Lunar Society were brilliant representatives of the informal scientific web that cut across class, blending the inherited skills of craftsmen with the theoretical advances of scholars, a key factor in British manufacturing's leap ahead of the rest of Europe. Most had been entranced by mechanics in childhood in the 1730s and 1740s, when itinerant lecturers toured the country displaying electrical and mechanical marvels. Something of that excitement radiates from Joseph Wright's painting A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery, and its companion piece, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, the one embodying Newtonian harmony, the other active, perilous natural forces. Wright was a friend of the group, and particularly of Whitehurst, Darwin, and Wedgwood.

The first step in the society's creation came when Darwin and Boulton met in Lichfield in the late 1750s. Darwin had studied medicine in Cambridge and in Edinburgh, where he had been influenced by innovative teachers such as William Cullen, and had friends in common with James Watt. (Scottish links remained an influential feature of the society.) Boulton, by contrast, was the son of a Birmingham metal worker who left school at fourteen, became his father's partner, and gained a fortune by successive—and controversial—marriages. He founded his famous manufactory at Soho, outside Birmingham, in 1761.

Darwin's theoretical knowledge and social skills complemented Boulton's technical expertise and entrepreneurial drive. Both knew John Whitehurst, and the trio were soon corresponding about experiments, instruments, and problems of heat. They shared a hero in Benjamin Franklin, who visited the midlands in 1758 and in 1765 introduced the young Scottish doctor and mathematician William Small. Small had previously taught in Williamsburg, Virginia (where his pupils included Thomas Jefferson), and his natural diplomacy welded the group together. A further element was added when James Keir, Darwin's fellow student in Edinburgh, arrived in 1766. A shrewd, humorous man and a talented chemist who translated Macquer's Dictionary of Chemistry, Keir became a glass maker and pioneering soap manufacturer. He was the ‘rock’, to whom all turned in times of stress.

The strength of the group was already evident: diverse expertise created a broad knowledge base, helping them to solve problems and explore different avenues. In the 1760s Boulton's chief concern was creating power to drive his machines, and he began to think of steam engines to pump water back into his millpond in times of drought. At the same time, in Glasgow, James Watt was repairing instruments for the university: in 1764, mending a model of a Newcomen atmospheric engine, he saw that he could greatly increase its efficiency by diverting steam to a separate condenser, where it could be cooled while the main cylinder stayed hot. Through the chemist Joseph Black, Watt was employed by the industrialist John Roebuck (originally from Birmingham, although he left before the Lunar Society was formed), who funded him while he struggled to adapt his designs to large-scale, working engines.

Boulton was determined to have Watt's improved engine, but declined Roebuck's offer of a licence for three or four counties, claiming he wished to make engines 'for all the world'. 'Everything that Mr Boulton did', as Keir said, 'was done on a large scale' (Keir memorandum, 1809, Birm. CL, Soho archive, MBP 290/112). In 1767 Watt visited Soho, and met Small and Darwin; over the next few years, largely through Small, he kept in touch with the group through detailed letters. In 1774, following Roebuck's bankruptcy and Boulton's acquisition of the engine patent, he finally moved to Birmingham: for the next twenty-five years Boulton and Watt installed engines from Cornwall to the Clyde. 'I shall never forget Mr Boulton's expression to me', wrote James Boswell after a visit to Soho in 1776, '“I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have—POWER”' (Boswell, Life, 2.459).

The group's second great manufacturer, Josiah Wedgwood, had first come in contact with the group when he was lobbying for the building of the Trent–Mersey canal, and had asked Darwin to assist with the prospectus. Wedgwood shared the Lunar Society's scientific and commercial interests: his experiment book on the chemistry of ceramic bodies and glazes contains nearly 5000 carefully recorded trials. He also had an eye for design and a talent for marketing, and took Boulton's Soho works as a model for his new factory, opened in 1769 (Darwin suggested the name, Etruria). Wedgwood was a Unitarian, and through his partner Thomas Bentley, who was involved with the Warrington academy, became an early supporter of Joseph Priestley. Over the next few years the whole society followed Priestley's experiments on electricity, optics, and chemistry, especially his discovery of pure 'dephlogisticated air' (oxygen) and other gases.

Lunar interests were kaleidoscopic, ranging from optics and astronomy, chemistry and mechanics, hydraulics and minerals, to meteorology and magnetism, ballooning and ballistics. The practical and theoretical merged. All were interested in minerals, for example Boulton for metallurgy, Wedgwood for ceramics, Watt, Darwin, Keir, Withering, and Priestley for chemical examination. Boulton, however, exploited the precious Derbyshire fluorite Blue John not for metallurgy, but as bodies for ormolu vases, joining Wedgwood in supplying the taste for classical vases. This movement between aesthetics and scientific research and application typified the society. Their interests were also linked to wider concerns. John Whitehurst's work on the volcanic rocks of the Peak District, for instance, published in his Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth (1778), fuelled the intense debates of the period about the creation of the earth.

Another interest of the period was in botany. After William Small's early death in 1775 his place was taken by the doctor William Withering, whose botanical interests, especially the application of the new Linnaean taxonomy, provoked Darwin's exuberant rivalry. Darwin's Linnaean dictionaries, and his impulsive use of digitalis on patients and publication of its effects before Withering published his carefully gathered results (in An Account of the Foxglove, 1785), provoked the group's only significant rift. Less damagingly, Withering also argued with the young doctor and botanist Jonathan Stokes, a member of the society from 1783 to 1788.

Despite such disputes, the group's real aim was collaboration and the 1770s and 1780s were their most productive years. Visitors occasionally attended their meetings, which acted as a think-tank and powerhouse of ideas. Some schemes were wild, like Darwin's proposal for towing icebergs to the equator to cool the tropics; others were futuristic—using diving bells to explore the ocean bed and balloons to cross continents, or creating a speaking machine. The mood is conveyed in Darwin's apology to Boulton in 1778 regretting that the 'infernal Divinites' who bring diseases, 'should have prevented my seeing all you great Men at Soho today'.

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, imprison'd in a post chaise, am jogged, and jostl'd and bump'd. and bruis'd along the King's high road, to make war upon a pox or a fever!

Letters of Erasmus Darwin, 324

In 1780 Darwin moved to Derby, but remained in close correspondence. In the same year Joseph Priestley was appointed minister of the Unitarian New Meeting House in Birmingham and immediately joined the society. Its members—including a new recruit, the Quaker manufacturer Samuel Galton—funded his research and provided equipment. Watt worked in collaboration (and in competition) with him in the race against Henry Cavendish and Antoine Lavoisier to discover the composition of water. Less happily, the group also backed Priestley's outdated phlogiston theory against Lavoisier's new French chemistry with its different theory of combustion and new nomenclature. Darwin was won over first, incorporating novel words like 'oxygen' or 'hydrogen' in his poem The Botanic Garden, in 1791.

The group also carried their experiments into the private realm, inoculating their children against smallpox and developing new methods of education. Wedgwood ran a family school, and when Darwin's two illegitimate daughters opened a school in the 1790s he wrote a radical prospectus: A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools. In Ireland Edgeworth published Practical Education (1790) and other educational works with his daughter, the novelist Maria Edgeworth. Thomas Day, however, became notorious for adopting two girls from foundling hospitals in a (luckily doomed) attempt to educate the perfect wife, before his later work as writer and reformer.

Day was a fervent political campaigner, who exemplifies the group's reforming zeal. He spoke fiercely against political corruption and for extension of the franchise, campaigned against cruelty to animals, and, with his friend Thomas Bicknell, wrote an early anti-slavery poem, The Dying Negro (1773). The whole Lunar Society supported this cause, and Wedgwood produced a medallion showing a chained slave with the motto Am I not a man and a brother? It would be wrong, however, to think of them all as radicals and dissenters. Watt, for example, was a Presbyterian but uninterested in politics, Darwin a freethinking deist, but Boulton was an Anglican and a pragmatic supporter of government (except on issues such as preferential trade between Ireland and Britain, where he was a founder of the General Chamber of Manufacturers, established to oppose William Pitt the younger's initiative on that subject). But through their links with Priestley they all became involved in the battle of radical dissenters for repeal of the Test Acts, which banned dissenters from Oxford and Cambridge and from holding any public office, and the whole Lunar group welcomed the French Revolution. Their perceived radicalism was their downfall. In July 1791, following a dinner to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, Birmingham rioters razed Priestley's New Meeting House and sacked and burnt his house and laboratory.

In 1794 Priestley emigrated to America, dedicating his last work published in Britain to the society. After this the Lunar spirit faded, although occasional meetings continued until about 1800. Wedgwood died in 1795; Darwin retreated to write his monumental poems and books and to develop his theory of biological evolution; Boulton and Watt and Keir flourished as manufacturers. The baton of experiment passed to disciples like Humphry Davy and scientific exploration entered a more formal, institutional phase.

The members of the Lunar Society passionately believed that their discoveries would make the world a better place. They were the optimistic, and idealistic, forebears of a new class, the nonconformist industrialists and reformers who would dominate nineteenth-century Britain and America. Part of their strength came from their long and deep friendships, providing support in times of trouble. This closeness was reflected by several marriages in later generations, including that of Darwin's son Robert to Wedgwood's daughter Susanna, the parents of Charles Darwin; and of his daughter Violetta to Galton's son Samuel Tertius, the parents of the geneticist Sir Francis Galton.