Within this political and social unrest, a diverse group of men, in Birmingham, are pursuing, as a hobby, scientific knowledge. Each of them has its own strong character and temperament. All are passionate, venturous, and progressive. They found a society, the Lunar Society of Birmingham. Their meetings are held every month, on a date near the full moon, starting with dinner at two and following with discussions and experiments until late evening. The discussed topics are many and diverse, from literature and philosophy to chemistry and engineering. These are the Lunar men, the men that by using science and technology, transform the way of doing things and lead the way towards the industrial revolution.
The ingenious engineer James Watt, who improved the Newcomen’s design and created with his partner Matthew Boulton, a market for a new, improved steam engine. The same Matthew Boulton, the “toymaker” who also established the Soho manufactory north of Birmingham and when asked by the George III what he was doing for living, he replied: “I am engaged, your majesty, in the production of a commodity which is the desire of Kings”. When the King what was that, Boulton said “Power, your Majesty”.
The potter Josiah Wedgwood, the fist to industrialise pottery manufacturing; he experimented with a wide variety of pottery techniques and used artists to garnish his vases. His interests were many and diverse, and it was in his house, the Etruria Hall, where photography was first invented.
Joseph Priestley, a theologian and natural philosopher, a teacher and political theorist. His work is vast, it is expanded to scientific inventions, most considerable his invention of soda water. He wrote about electricity and photosynthesis but become famous with the discovery of oxygen – the “dephlogisticated air” as he dubbed it. He was a minister within the Unitarian church and his theses about political and civil liberties caused strong opposition. His house and books were burnt by the mobs during the riots against intellectualism; his exile to America was the start of the end for the Lunar Society.
Perhaps the most interesting figure in the book is Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, the founder of the theory of Evolution. He was a doctor by profession, but his interests were many and diverse. Gardening, agriculture, chemistry and engineering, poetry and philosophy, even cosmology, were some of his intellectual passions and pursuits. He also had a vague idea about evolution; he increasingly felt that every living organism had descended from one common microscopic organism, a single filament. Darwin would construct the first coherent theory of evolution, of competition and survival. He added to his family crest the motto E conchis omnia “everything from shells”, an action that outraged his clerical friends. Canon Seward sputtered that Darwin was a follower of Epicurus, who claimed that the world was created by accident and not God. Fearing for his practice, Darwin caved in and painted out his blasphemous Latin. (pages 152-153)
After her excellent biography of Hogarth, Jenny Uglow gives us a nice and detailed history of the Lunar men. Their personal adventures and family stories and tragedies are intertwined beautifully with their intellectual passions and scientific pursuits. She describes sufficiently the revolutions of this period that changed the political and social systems, such as the French and the American Revolutions as well as, the revolutionary advances in science, such as these of Linnaeus and Lavoisier.
She has researched her subject widely and indeed, the reference list is detailed and extensive. It is a useful tool for anyone who wants to examine and study more extensively the period and the lives of these extraordinary men. The book is supported by beautiful illustrations and portraits of these passionate men and their inventions. It is a very well written book that demonstrates that even in difficult periods there are determined and passionate people that can lead the way and really change the world.