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THE LUNAR SOCIETY
Matthew Boulton's home, Soho House, where the Lunar Society often met. It is now open to the public
Richard Lovell Edgeworth
Thomas Jefferson, one-time pupil of William Small
The Lunar Society was a remarkable grouping of gifted polymaths who met every month in and around Birmingham on the Monday nearest the full moon (when there was most light to travel home by) from 1765 until 1813. To begin with, they called themselves the Lunar Circle, the more formal title 'Lunar Society' being adopted in 1775.
It has been written that 'The Lunar Society was second only to the Royal Society in its importance as a gathering place for scientists, inventors and natural philosophers during the second half of the eighteenth century'. In fact, it was more than that. These men were interested not merely in science, but especially in the application of science to manufacturing, mining, transportation, education, medicine and much else. They were, if you like, the revolutionary committee of that most far reaching of all the eighteenth century revolutions, the Industrial Revolution. Supremely confident, they were changing the world forever, and they knew it. They firmly believed that what they were doing would better the lot of mankind. They believed, as Jacob Bronowski put it, that 'the good life is more than material decency, but the good life must be based on material decency'. They believed that by raising productive capacity they would be able to deliver material decency for all, and to a large extent, as far as the developed world is concerned, they have been proven right. Historians today talk of the 'Midlands Enlightenment', which was contemporaneous with the Parisian and Edinburgh enlightenments, but distinguished by its emphasis on going beyond thought, putting theory into practice and translating ideas into action. The Lunar Society was the heart of that Midlands Enlightenment.
Although the Lunar Society was not a political body - indeed, they never discussed politics or religion at their meetings - many of its members were politically liberal, in a rather 'New Labour' kind of way. Many of them sympathised with the ends, if not all of the means, of the French revolution and the American rebellion. They were humane, and sincere in wishing to improve the lot of ordinary people. They abhorred slavery and several of them led the campaign against it. But they believed in private property, in capitalist self help and entrepreneurialism, whilst advocating the extension of the franchise, measures to reduce corruption, and a reduction in the power of the church and aristocracy. They also enjoyed themselves; it is clear from their correspondence that their meetings were fun, as well as being intellectually stimulating, and they cheerfully referred to themselves as 'lunaticks'.
So who were they, this remarkable bunch of men? They numbered fourteen, as follows.
Matthew Boulton, who having built up the most famous manufacturing business of the day, went on to make a practical reality of James Watt's condensing steam engine, and then to invent modern, high quality, fraud resistant coinage.
Erasmus Darwin. Grandfather of Charles, a family doctor whose work in botany and evolution anticipated much of what his grandson would write fifty years later. He was also an acclaimed poet and an inventor, and like Joseph Priestley, was seen abroad, at least, as a top-flight philosopher.
Thomas Day, educational reformer and anti-slavery campaigner. Day's best-selling poem, The dying negro, written in 1773, explored the sufferings of the slaves and sparked off the anti-slavery campaign in Britain.
Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Also interested in educational reform, he was a pioneer of telegraphy who furthermore made discoveries in the field of electricity and invented improved agricultural machinery and a steam carriage
Samuel Galton, a Quaker with interests in science, who despite the Quakers' staunch pacifism, was a gunmaker. Indeed, it was worse than that; the family firm was the largest supplier of cheap, and sometimes unsafe, muzzle-loading muskets for use in the slave trade. Sent by wagon to Bristol, the muskets were loaded by slavers onto their ships and taken to Africa, where they were handed to local chieftains in exchange for slaves. Though he was disowned by the Society of Friends 'for fabricating instruments for the destruction of mankind', the Friends did not condemn Galton's involvement in the slave trade or stop him worshipping at the Bull Street Meeting House, and Galton himself continued to vigorously defend his business activities. Galton's attitude to the slave trade was in sharp contrast to that of Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood and other members of the Lunar Society.
Robert Augustus Johnson, chemist.
James Keir, who made advances in the manufacture of glass, and was a pioneer of the chemical industry. He became a partner in the company James Watt set up to exploit the copy-press he had invented, and helped Watt with experiments to produce the best ink for the process. But he made his fortune from a process he invented for manufacturing caustic soda. This was done by treating salt with sulphuric acid and then filtering the sodium sulphate that was produced through slaked lime. (Hydrochloric acid was also produced as a useful by-product.) He set up a factory at Bloomsmithy in Tipton to make caustic soda, but later converted the works into a soap manufactory (caustic soda being an important ingredient of soap). This large works, covering 20 acres, which was regarded as a model factory in its time, not only made Keir rich, it also transformed the nation's hygiene by making available, for the first time ever, a plentiful supply of cheap soap.
Joseph Priestley, a minister of religion and amateur scientist who discovered oxygen, the indiarubber eraser and much else, and invented carbonated water.
William Murdock, inventor of gas lighting.
William Small, doctor of medicine who had taught mathematics to the young Thomas Jefferson and who had interests in engineering, chemistry and metallurgy.
Jonathan Stokes, botanist.
James Watt, inventor of the condensing and rotary steam engines, an early copying process and much else; maker of musical and scientific instruments, canal surveyor and more.
Josiah Wedgwood, celebrated potter, canal promoter and Charles Darwin's other grandfather.
John Whitehurst, maker of clocks and scientific instruments, and a pioneering geologist who did much to work out how the earth had been formed.
William Withering, another medical doctor, also a botanist with interests in metallurgy and chemistry. He is most famous for the discovery of the medicinal properties of the foxglove in treating heart disease, and took the place of William Small following the latter's untimely death in 1775.
The American statesman Benjamin Franklin was a corresponding member of the society, as were others including John Smeaton, the great civil engineer.
They held their meetings in one another's houses, often meeting at Matthew Boulton's home, Soho House, which is not far from the Jewellery Quarter and is open to the public. You can visit there the very room in which the Lunar Society met. They demonstrated scientific discoveries, discussed how those discoveries could be translated into new products or industries, described practical problems they had encountered in their everyday activities and devised plans of action for solving them. They were much concerned, for example, with devising accurate means of measurement: accurate weights and measures were vital in assaying, whilst accurate measurements of furnace temperatures were of key importance to various manufacturing members of the group. The improvement of transport, particularly by the building of canals, concerned them and many of them invested in canal companies. But Priestley, for example, in his experiments did science for science's sake, and they were interested in that, too. And science was only the half of it. They discussed social, political and economic matters, and conducted wide-ranging debate about the social impact of the Industrial Revolution and the general revolutionary climate of the times. In a letter of apology written to Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin gives a vivid flavour of their discussions:
'I am sorry the infernal Divinities, who visit mankind with diseases & are therefore at perpetual war with doctors, should have prevented my seeing all you great men at Soho today - Lord! What inventions, what wit, what rhetoric, metaphysical, mechanical & pyrotechnical will be on the wing, bandy'd like a shuttlecock from one to another of your troop of philosophers! While poor I, I by myself I, imprison'd in a post chaise, am joggled & jostled & bump'd & bruised along the King's high road, to make war on a pox or a fever!'
Why did all these distinguished people gather in Birmingham? Well, although chance played its part, you have to remember that Brum was leading the world in those days. The Soho Manufactory and the Soho Foundry were, if you like, the Silicon Valley of those times, and they drew people from all over the world, most to look, but some to live, just as Silicon Valley does today.
The Lunar Society was formally wound up in 1813, by which time only James Keir, James Watt, Edgeworth and Samuel Galton were still alive. They held a lottery to decide who should have their books, which Samuel Galton won. The youngest of the group, he survived until 1832. The rest were all gone by 1820.
Other sites: Midlands Enlightenment
© 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 Bob Miles