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Richard Lovell Edgeworth

William Small

William Murdock

William Murdock's steam carriage 

Josiah Wedgwood

James Keir

Samuel Galton

William Withering

Thomas Jefferson

Benjamin Franklin



Richard Lovell Edgeworth was born in Bath in 1744 and educated at Oxford and at Trinity College, Dublin. Described as a lively and affectionate man, he was a close friend of Thomas Day, sharing his views on educational reform. But Edgeworth's interests were much wider than that. He conducted research into telegraphy and invented improved agricultural machinery and means of transport. 

Together with his novelist daughter Maria, Edgeworth wrote a book Practical Education. But sadly, he suffered a signal lack of success in the education of his own son, whom he raised in accordance with Rousseau's principles, surrendering discipline to 'natural' development. Unfortunately the boy grew up quite insufferable, to the extent that even Rousseau couldn't stand him. Edgeworth died in 1817. 

James Keir was born in Edinburgh in 1735. After studying medicine at Edinburgh University he joined the army, and rose to the rank of captain before resigning in 1768. Two years later, at the age of 35, he moved to West Bromwich, near Birmingham and quickly became involved in the Lunar Society. Like other Lunaticks he helped Joseph Priestley with some of his experiments, but whereas Priestley continued to cling to outmoded ideas such as the phlogiston theory, Keir was quick to accept the new thinking of Lavoisier and others. 

He became an industrialist, establishing a glass-making business at Stourbridge in 1771, and in 1778 he co-founded the Tipton Chemical Works, which was making alkali from the sulphates of potash and soda forty years before Nicholas Leblanc introduced what became the favoured process in the nineteenth century. The alkali produced was particularly suited to soap-making. Before long the Tipton works was producing a million pounds weight annually of soap, and Keir was a rich man. He was also a partner in the successful Tividale Colliery in the Black Country. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1785, James Keir died in 1820.

William Murdock was born in Ayrshire in 1754. In 1777 he walked all the way to Birmingham and asked Matthew Boulton for a job. Boulton was intrigued by the oval wooden hat Murdock was wearing and asked where he had got it. When Murdock replied that he had made it himself, on a lathe of his own devising, the job was his.

In 1779 he was sent to Cornwall to superintend the erection of Boulton & Watt steam engines, which were in big demand from the Cornish mines. He was to spend the next nineteen years in Cornwall, during which time he invented a highly compact and efficient high pressure steam engine. Around 1784 he built a model steam carriage, powered by such an engine,  which he tested in his living room, and it is said that he built a larger model which careered around the lanes of Cornwall, convincing the local vicar that the Evil One had settled in Redruth. In making this invention Murdock was twenty years ahead of Trevithick and thirty ahead of George Stephenson, but sadly it was neither patented nor developed, since Boulton and Watt both persuaded William Murdock to quietly drop the idea. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but it does seem likely that James Watt felt threatened by Murdock's invention, whilst Matthew Boulton probably wished to avoid a dispute with his partner. Too modest and unassuming for his own good perhaps, Murdock seems not to have pressed the matter.

Murdock's inventiveness didn't stop there. In 1792 he invented coal-gas lighting, by means of which he illuminated his own house. After his return to Soho in 1798 experiments began in earnest, culminating in 1802 in the first ever public display of gas lighting, when the Soho Manufactory was illuminated to celebrate the Peace of Amiens. He also invented an oscillating engine, in 1785, and a steam gun. He is widely credited with the invention of the sun and planet gear for turning the reciprocating action of steam engines into rotary motion, although it was James Watt who patented the idea, in 1781.  And William Murdock earned the eternal gratitude of British beer lovers by inventing a means of making isinglass, which is used in the clarification of beer, from British fish.

Whilst Boulton and Watt may not have done William Murdock any favours as regards his inventions, they clearly looked after him financially. He built a splendid house at Handsworth, not far from the homes of Boulton and Watt, and continued to work for the firm until his retirement in 1830 at the age of 76. William Murdock died in Birmingham in 1839, aged 85. He is buried, alongside his employers, in St Mary's, Handsworth, Birmingham.

William Small was born in Scotland in 1734 and educated at Marischal College, Aberdeen. In 1758 he was appointed professor of natural philosophy at William & Mary College, in Williamsburg, Virginia, USA, where he taught maths to the young Thomas Jefferson, on whom he had a profound and lasting influence. In 1764 he returned to the UK, but not without leaving a marked impression on the teaching methods and curricula of the William & Mary College.

Small arrived in Birmingham in 1765 with a letter of introduction to Matthew Boulton from the great American scientist, philosopher and political thinker, Benjamin Franklin. On Boulton's advice, Small established a medical practice in Birmingham, sharing a house in Temple Row with Dr John Ash (a blue plaque in Rackhams Temple Row entrance marks the site of the house), who owned land in the district of Ashted, which is now named after him. Although he was active in the general life of the town, proving instrumental in the establishment of a general hospital, his influence on the development of the Lunar Society was crucial.

A consummate networker, it was Small who first introduced many of the members of the group to one another. With interests in engineering, chemistry and metallurgy, he contributed greatly to their debates and was one of the best-liked members of the circle. His death in 1775 at the early age of 41, after a long illness which had progressively debilitated him (thought to have been a form of malaria contracted in Virginia), was a great blow to the Lunar Society and a source of grief to its members. An intriguing mystery attends his death, in that as he lay dying Matthew Boulton and Erasmus Darwin rummaged through his papers. It is not known what they were looking for, or whether they found it.

Josiah Wedgwood was born in Burslem, Staffordshire, in 1730, the youngest son of Thomas Wedgwood, whose family had been potters for generations. Upon his father's death in 1739 the young Josiah started work in the family's pottery, proving exceptionally skilful at the potter's wheel. At the age of 14 he suffered an attack of smallpox, as a result of which his right leg had to be amputated. But he took advantage of his convalescence to read, research and experiment in his craft.

In 1754 he went into partnership with Thomas Whieldon, the leading potter of his day. The experience he gained from this partnership enabled him to become a master of the latest pottery techniques. Five years later he set up in business on his own.

He was to prove remarkably innovative in the introduction of new fashions in pottery. He invented a green glaze which remains popular today. His clean, well-finished cream-coloured earthenware, which was known as Queen's ware because Queen Charlotte bought it, came to be the standard domestic pottery on account of its durability and serviceability, and achieved a worldwide market. His unglazed jasperware, often blue and decorated with white relief portraits or classical scenes, remains as popular as ever. He also introduced Egyptian ware, or basaltes ware, a black material used for busts and also for vases which, when decorated with red painting, could be made to imitate Greek red-figure vases. But his greatest contribution was his fine pearlware, an extremely pale creamware, which took Europe by storm. His business having outgrown his earlier premises, in 1771 Wedgwood built his famous Etruria factory. 

But Josiah Wedgwood's interests ranged much wider than pottery, and it was those wider interests that engaged the Lunar Society. In common with James Watt and other members with manufacturing interests, he was keenly interested in developing accurate methods of measurement, which were the key to improving the quality of many manufactured goods. His invention of the pyrometer, a device for the measurement of the high temperatures found in pottery kilns, led to his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. Along with other members of the Lunar Society he was keenly interested in improving the efficiency of manufacturing processes, and this led to him introducing 'division of labour', long practised to great effect in Birmingham, to his factories. He conducted a detailed analysis of the costs of every facet of production, which led him to appreciate the economies of longer production runs, and the importance of achieving a high throughput. He quickly realised the importance of canal transport and actively promoted the building of the Trent & Mersey Canal, which he used both to bring Cornish clay to Etruria, and to ship finished goods out. Upon the urging of Erasmus Darwin he was one of the first to install a steam engine at his works, in 1782.

Like many of his fellow Lunaticks, Wedgwood entertained progressive views. He became a Unitarian in the late 1760s, actively supported constitutional reform and became a prominent and active member of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. 

Josiah Wedgwood died in 1795, aged 64. His daughter Susannah married Erasmus Darwin's son Robert, making him Charles Darwin's 'other' grandfather. 

William Withering. Born In 1741 in Wellington, Shropshire, like Erasmus Darwin William Withering studied medicine at Edinburgh and following the death of William Small, Darwin invited Withering to take Small's place in the Lunar Society. A shy and pedantic man with a tendency to irascibility, Withering became chief physician at the Birmingham General Hospital and built up a medical practice that was sufficiently prosperous to enable him to simultaneously lease Edgbaston Hall, now the clubhouse of Edgbaston Golf Club, and to build himself a handsome town house (long since demolished) in Union Street. 

William Withering made an extensive study of botany and in 1776 he published an 826-page treatise on all the vegetables growing naturally in Britain. This book was the first comprehensive treatment of botany in English to use the Linnean system of plant classification. As one would expect of a medical practitioner, Withering commented on the medicinal properties of the plants he described, taking particular care to debunk claims made on the basis of superstition, as opposed to observation. His greatest botanical work came in 1787, when he published a greatly enlarged treatise on British plants generally, which Erasmus Darwin urged him to call English Botany. To Withering, however, that was unacceptably succinct and he insisted on giving his book a title that went on (and on!) for a full nine lines, or twenty-seven lines if you include the names, titles honours and affiliations of Withering and his collaborator, Jonathan Stokes, and the printer, and the publisher, etc. He published a further, final volume of this great work in 1792

But the event that was to lead to his main claim to fame had come earlier.  In 1775 Withering was asked to attend a patient who was seriously ill with dropsy, to the point where Withering himself believed the case to be hopeless. The patient,  thinking otherwise, took a gypsy remedy and recovered. Withering tracked down the gypsy and discovered that the potion contained twenty herbs. From his botanical knowledge, Withering knew that the only active ingredient was foxglove or, to give it its botanical name, digitalis. This plant, which had been known since ancient times to have diuretic properties and to produce purging and vomiting, had long been used in the treatment of certain conditions. Withering knew that wrongly administered, it could produce violent, and even dangerous effects. Concerned to find the best way to administer the drug and the most appropriate dose, he embarked on a programme of experimentation (carried out on no less than 156 of his patients!) and meticulous recording, as a result of which Withering concluded that the best formulation was dried powdered leaf, taken by mouth in much smaller doses than had generally been used. This way, the drug's beneficial diuretic effects could be obtained without inducing purging or vomiting, though some patients did suffer temporary side-effects, such as blurred vision. Though he didn't recognise that dropsy was a symptom of heart disease, he did observe that digitalis 'has a power over the motion of the heart, to a degree yet unobserved in any other medicine'. To this day, there are no better drugs in the treatment of certain kinds of heart disease than derivatives of foxglove. He published his findings on the medicinal properties of digitalis in 1785, in his classic work An Account of the Foxglove or, to give it its full title, An Account of the Foxglove and some of its Medical Uses, with Practical Remarks on Dropsy, and other Diseases. Time has not detracted from this great work; if anything, the greater knowledge we now possess has confirmed the validity of his findings. This work was also seminal in establishing a new standard in the application of the scientific approach to medicine, in which Withering was a pioneer.

As a result of meeting Joseph Priestley at the Lunar Society he developed interests in chemistry and mineralogy, which occupied him in the winter, when the weather was unsuitable for botanising. He studied the chemical compositions of a number of minerals, including Rowley rag, a highly fractured brown-coloured stone found in the huge quarries at Rowley Regis, near Dudley, and widely used in road-making. (The streets of London might or might not have been paved with gold; those of Birmingham most definitely were paved with Rowley rag.) He gave at least two papers on mineralogy to the Royal Society, and his work in this field gained him such wide respect that the mineral barium carbonate was named Witherite in his honour.

He died, still a relatively young man of 58, after a long illness in 1799. He had first become ill  in 1762 while studying in Edinburgh, and it is thought that at that time he contracted tuberculosis, which eventually killed him. He is buried in Edgbaston church.

(I am most grateful to Kit Byatt for pointing out some errors in an earlier version of this account of William Withering.)



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Richard Lovell Edgeworth: (1) 

William Murdock  (1)

William Small: (1), (2), (3), (4)

Josiah Wedgwood: (1)(2), (3), (4)

William Withering (1), (2), (3)

James Keir



 Thomas Jefferson on William Small's influence on him (1): 'It was my great good fortune and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr Wm Small of Scotland was then professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, & an enlarged and liberal mind. He, most happily for me, soon became attached to me & made me his daily companion when not engaged in the school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science & the system of things in which we are placed.' 

(2): 'When I was young, mathematics was the passion of my life.'

Edgeworth on William Small: 'By means of Mr Keir I became acquainted with Dr Small of Birmingham, a man esteemed by all who knew him, and by all who were admitted to his friendship beloved with no common enthusiasm. Dr Small formed a link which combined Mr Boulton, Mr Watt, Dr Darwin, Mr Wedgwood, Mr Day and myself together - men of very different character but all devoted to literature and science.'

Seriously ill, William Withering took to spending his winters in Portugal for the good of his health, prompting Matthew Boulton to coin the dreadful pun, 'The flower of Physick was in such a Withering way as to render a transportation to Lisbon necessary'.  


 I am a doctoral student at
Virginia Commonwealth University and my dissertation subject is William  Small. Besides the Boulton-Watt Collection in the Birmingham Central Library there is supposed to be a private collection of correspondence located somewhere in Wales.  If you could give me any clues to locating information about this elusive figure it would be greatly appreciated.

I don't know the answer. Can anyone else help with this enquiry?

2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 Bob Miles