The Lunar Men

“In the eighteenth century clubs are everywhere,” says Jenny Uglow, “clubs for singing, clubs for drinking, clubs for farting; clubs of poets and pudding-makers and politicians.” This marvelous book is the history of one such club, the Lunar Society of Birmingham, so named because they met on the Monday nearest the full moon so they would have enough light to go home by. The men of this club were not just like-minded comrades. Instead, they were hugely curious, influential thinkers and doers, who together helped to nudge Britain into the modern age. Erasmus Darwin (yes, Charles Darwin’s grandfather.) Josiah Wedgwood and his celebrated jasperware. James Watt, of steam-engine fame. Richard Edgeworth. Joseph Priestley, one of several people who isolated oxygen at around the same time. All of these, and others, were members of the Lunar Society.

We live in an age of specialization. We train to do one thing well, whether that’s literature, medicine, law, or civil engineering. If we’re lucky, we also know enough about something else to enjoy it in our spare time: jazz, books, rock climbing, gardening. But these men, keenly trained in their chosen professions, were also enormously gifted amateurs in just about every area of human endeavor: science, education, philosophy, commerce, invention, religion. Darwin was a well-known doctor, but he also made a study of botany, including the new Linnaean method of classification, and he wrote an epically long poem celebrating Linnaeus as well as many other marvels of the day. Wedgwood was a potter, of course, but he did chemical experiments, had a profound understanding of geology, trained his children according to Rousseau’s latest theories, and supported the abolition of slavery. Priestley preached revolution from the pulpit at the same time that he was sniffing every gas he could produce and creating theories to rival Antoine Lavoisier’s.

All this time, these men met whenever they could and sent letters thick and fast whenever they could not. Their intellect, their philosophy, their medicine, chemistry, geology, and invention all went to bolster each other’s lives and fortunes. A discovery of kaolin in Cornwall made Matthew Boulton’s creamware shine at Soho; those same Cornwall mines could be pumped out using Watt’s steam engines; a new species of plant found growing on the cliffs there would be sent to Darwin. These men minted money, cut canals, travelled to France, to Russia, to Germany. The families all knew each other (two generations later, Charles Darwin married Emma Wedgwood.) The fathers gave jobs, money, and avuncular advice to each other’s sons, and condoled with each other when things weren’t going well. As a group, they got through a staggeringly large number of wives and had more children than you’d think, for such busy men. (Though one of the things to prepare for whenever reading about the eighteenth century is, of course, the heartbreakingly high rate of child mortality.)

Jenny Uglow presents this group as special in the way they thought — all of them were forward, progressive thinkers, eager for scientific breakthroughs and dismissive of superstition — and in the way their experiments, inventions, and commercial endeavors cross-pollinated one another. She also shows the century itself, in all its headlong rush. Industrialization, canals, hot-air balloons, the wheeze and snort of engines, the vases on the mantelpieces and the monarchy of France — everything, everything was changing, slippery, dangerous, exciting, heady.

This is a tremendously interesting book. Uglow does a wonderful job of three separate tasks: the portraits of individuals (Matthew Boulton, the risk-taker, bold and cheerful, so different from the fearful and gloomy Watt), the portrait of the group, and the portrait of the age. Let yourself be wrapped up in this book for a while and feel the tides and times shift.

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16 Responses to The Lunar Men

  1. sakura says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, but somehow my history of science reading has fallen by the wayside since I finished my studies. So thank you for the review as it’s reminded me of my interests! It’s interesting to think that Darwin and Wedgewood’s early friendship probably led to the marriage of their grandchildren.

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t think of this as history of science while I was reading it (more sort of biography) but of course it is. Fascinating stuff.

  2. Another Dirda book, I see! It sounds absolutely great. If it were not in the realm of 600 pages I might dive right in. As it is, it might take some scheduling.

    How long is it, really, clearing out the footnotes and so on?

    • Jenny says:

      Disregarding notes and bibliography, it’s 500 solid pages. And there are illustrations! Oh, well worth reading. Rarely have I read a 500-page historical biography that was such a page-turner, if you will.

  3. Stefanie says:

    Oh, does this ever sound good! I will have to look for it at my library or maybe even buy a copy!

  4. This sounds fantastic! I’ll definitely be on the lookout for a copy.

  5. Heather says:

    Thank you for reminding me that I’ve wanted to read this – it sounds great. I read and really liked another book by Uglow – Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick – back in 2007: it was immensely readable and interesting.

    • Jenny says:

      I knew she’d done a life of Hogarth, which sounds great, but I hadn’t heard of that one. The Lunar Men won some prizes, and deservedly so.

  6. mumble says:

    Thank you for this; although I have covered some of this material elsewhere, your review pressed my “We’ve got something here” button and I’ve ordered a copy from Amazon.

    I amazoned “uglow lunar” and, after the standard responses that referred to the book itself came page after page of other books in which this book is cited, and many of them seem similarly attractive.

    Likewise the selection that appeared under “Frequently Bought Together with the Item that You Added”.

    • Jenny says:

      I thought you would like this! Solidly written, and I kept thinking of the generation right before Jack Aubrey. I look forward to hearing your reaction when you get around to it.

  7. Aarti says:

    Ooh, a whole CLUB of Renaissance men! How fabulous! I often wonder if our specialized society is more of a hindrance than a help. I know it’s good to know something deeply and to know it really well, but I feel by specializing, we also miss out on those sparks of applying one aspect of our lives to a completely unrelated field.

    • Jenny says:

      Funny that the Renaissance men should live in the 18th century! :) But yes. I agree about specializing — I’m a passionate defender of the liberal arts, myself.

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