J.M.S. Pearce, MD
Hull Royal Infirmary, United Kingdom
Mention “Lunar Society“ and most academics will stare vacantly, despite the society’s fame during the eighteenth century. Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), grandfather of Charles Darwin, was a founder of the Lunar Society in Birmingham (c. 1765- c.1800), which counted several physicians in its numbers. The original “Lunarmen” comprised a select club, gathered together monthly for lively exchange of ideas over dinner. Members were often referred to as “Lunaticks”: Galton’s butler’s term which the Lunaticks themselves embraced.
A crucial element in the “Midlands Enlightenment,” they were pioneering natural philosophers (scientists), physicians, mechanical engineers and manufacturers—”the fathers of the industrial revolution.” It was an informal body with no membership list, officers, or minutes. Their discussions are reflected in their letters, publications and inventions. The title derived from their meeting near the full moon, which could light their ride home. Their fertile deliberations spawned extraordinary advances in science, engineering, and medicine. It also yielded influential experts in industry, commerce, political and social ideology.1
Matthew Boulton and the polymath physician Erasmus Darwin led the Lunar society. The number of members never exceeded fourteen. It could boast Soho Works founder Matthew Boulton (1728-1809); Scottish engineer and scientist James Watt (1736-1819); Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), Unitarian minister and chemist who discovered oxygen; physician and philosophical guru Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802); Scottish physician and naturalist William Small (1734-75); engineer and educator Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817); poet and children’s author Thomas Day (1748-89); Scottish chemist James Keir (1735-1820); clockmaker and founder of modern geology John Whitehurst (1713-88); physician Jonathan Stokes (1755-1831); minister Robert Augustus Johnson (1745-99); Quaker arms manufacturer Samuel Galton (1753-1832); and physician and botanist William Withering (1741-99).2
| Lunar Society stalwarts: Matthew Boulton,
Erasmus Darwin, & William Small
| Lunar Society stalwarts: Joseph Priestley,
James Watt, & James Keir
Beginnings of the Lunar Society
The beginnings were rooted in the meeting of Darwin and Boulton in Lichfield in the late 1750s.3 Darwin, a polymath of dazzling intellectual range, had friends in common with James Watt and Matthew Boulton. Son of a Birmingham buckle and toy maker, Boulton left school aged fourteen, became his father’s partner, and founded his famous “Soho manufactory” at Soho House, Handsworth, Birmingham, in 1761. A sociable, impulsive man, his technical knowledge and business acumen complemented Darwin’s intellectual and imaginative powers. Both Darwin and Boulton had been interested in the design of steam engines before Watt joined them. The theory of latent heat underpinned Watt’s invention of the separate condenser, with an air-pump, creating a unique fuel-saving improvement to the steam engine (c. 1768), doubtless discussed with Boulton and Darwin. Meanwhile Boulton’s toy business triggered his interest in metallurgy, shared by William Withering and James Keir to produce many industrial applications. Watt moved to Birmingham, and exchanged ideas and industrial plans with Small and Darwin at Soho House. Mechanical power had become their obsession. This made possible large-scale mechanization of Midlands’ factories and mills. Boulton applied other techniques to Sheffield plate, ormolu, jewelry and the minting of coins. He was elected FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society) in 1785 and FRS Edinburgh in 1783 and was a member of the Society of Civil Engineers.
Benjamin Franklin’s visits introduced Dr. William Small to the Lunarmen. A Scottish physician, mathematician, and professor of Natural Philosophy, Small had taught Thomas Jefferson in Williamsburg.8 Small was praised by the Lunar circle as the kindly force that bound together its members.4 Diverse expertise created diverse knowledge, which helped them to explore problems together.5 James Keir (qv) typified the society by reference to Boulton:
Mr. B. is a proof how much sound knowledge may be acquired without much regular study, by means of a quick and just apprehension, much practical application, and nice mechanical feelings … It cannot be doubted that he was indebted for much of his knowledge to the best preceptor, the conversation of eminent men.
Darwin and Boulton attracted John Whitehurst (1730-88) to discuss experiments, instruments and their applications. A noted clockmaker, hydraulics expert, and geologist Whitehurst, because of the distance from his Derby home, attended few meetings.
Erasmus Darwin6 was born at Elston Hall, near Nottingham. His son Robert was a medical Fellow of the Royal Society (F.R.S.) and father of Charles Darwin. Although medical practice was his principal job, his curiosity diverted Erasmus to other scientific explorations. His first paper to the Royal Society (1757) proved that electricity did not affect the properties of electrically charged air. He was elected F.R.S. in 1761. In the next decade, he experimented on steam engines, gases, geology, botany, meteorology, chemistry, and designed steam-carriages and speaking machines.7 Stimulated by his fellow Lunaticks, he produced novel spinning machines, water pumps, and canal locks.
The Origin of Society, published posthumously in 1803 as The Temple of Nature, showed that generation involved a continuous development process passed on to the embryo and then developed by a series of interaction with their environment, which integrated body and mind; this concept can be discerned in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, 1859. In 1796, his Zoonomia classified diseases by their proximate causes, a new taxonomy. With fellow Lunaticks he promoted female education and established a boarding school in 1794. However, he was harshly criticized as atheistic and materialistic. The poet Coleridge, though he disliked Darwin’s atheism, observed: “ he possesses, perhaps a greater range of knowledge than any other man in Europe”.
Dr. William Withering introduced digitalis for treating dropsy and heart failure – a major therapeutic advance in standard use until the late twentieth century. The charming Irishman, Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817) ingeniously invented a robust wooden horse, a carriage with sails, a turnip cutter, and an umbrella to cover haystacks. These were rewarded with gold and silver medals from the Society for Encouragement of Arts and provided work for local blacksmiths. He joined the Lunar circle c.1766. Allied to their thinking he published Practical Education (1790). He profoundly influenced Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849), one of his supposed twenty-four children, who was a celebrated novelist and teacher.
The eccentric Thomas Day (1748-89) was both author and abolitionist, well known for his best-selling children’s book The History of Sandford and Merton. He espoused Rousseau’s educational ideas in adopting orphaned children. Dr. Jonathan Stokes (1755-1831) was an Edinburgh trained M.D. from Stourbridge, botanist and experimenter in chemistry who gave his name to the herbaceous perennial Aster, Stokesia laevis and contributed to Withering’s text on digitalis (qv). James Keir, Darwin’s fellow student in Edinburgh, arrived in 1766. He was “a mighty chemist … and a very agreeable man” (Watt).Keir succeeded in making soda from salt commercially in his alkali works at Tipton, and developed both glass and soap manufacture. He often chaired Lunar meetings. He was the rock, to whom all turned in times of stress. Reverend Robert Johnson (1745-1799), a chemist, was said to be relatively undistinguished. Samuel Galton, a gun maker interested in chemistry was also included, but was disowned by the Quakers “for fabricating instruments for the destruction of mankind.”
Collectively, the Society not only debated and experimented, but they also built canals, public buildings, factories, and founded famous businesses.8 Their diverse influence was breathtaking. Yet few of the Lunarmen had a formal education, though ten became F.R.S. Many were nonconformist independent spirits, unhampered by traditional hierarchies, able to build networks with new dissenting academies.8 At this time, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge banned non-members of the Church of England forcing Quakers, Jews, and other “dissenters” to study in more permissive academies, notably Leiden and Edinburgh. Once qualified, they established an informal scientific nexus that ignored social class and religion, to mix those versed in mechanics and engineering with science scholars, to their mutual benefit. Thus Britain led the way in Europe. It is difficult to sense the excitement aroused by their formidable, diverse collaboration. It was perhaps reflected in Joseph Wright of Derby’s celebrated paintings, A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery and his An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. Wright was a friend of Whitehurst, Darwin, and Wedgwood.
While seeking a contract for building the Trent–Mersey canal, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95) sought Darwin’s help and soon joined the Lunar Society. He experimented on ceramic objects and glazes, and influenced by Boulton’s Soho works modeled his “Etruria works”— the renowned Wedgwood pottery in Staffordshire, opened in 1769. Wedgwood strongly supported Priestley’s experiments on electricity, optics, and crucially his discovery of “dephlogisticated air” (oxygen). He also invented the pyrometer to measure high temperatures in kilns during the firing of pottery. For this he was elected F.R.S.
Lunar interests were wide, both theoretical and practical. For example, Boulton used precious Derbyshire fluorite “Blue John” not for metallurgy, but for ormolu vases, joining Wedgwood in cultivating public taste for classical vases. More arcane concepts also arose: Whitehurst’s Original State and Formation of the Earth (1778) was based on his investigation of the local volcanic rock, but it stimulated vigorous debate about the creation of the Earth. Inevitably within such a gifted group of experimenters rare disputes arose, despite which, a high level of fertile and friendly collaboration pertained, culminating in their most productive period between 1770 and 1790. In 1780 Darwin moved to Derby, and Priestley was appointed Unitarian minister in Birmingham and joined the society. Lunar members financed his research with Watt aimed at beating Cavendish and Lavoisier to the discovery of H20, the formula of water.
New methods of education also fell within the Lunar ambit. Wedgwood ran a family school, and Darwin wrote the radical A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools (1797). In Ireland Edgeworth published Practical Education (1790). Thomas Day supported by the Lunar Society was a zealous political campaigner, who campaigned passionately against political corruption, cruelty to animals and, with Thomas Bicknell, wrote an early anti-slavery poem, “The Dying Negro” (1773). Wedgwood distributed hundreds of cameos depicting slaves in chains, with the maxim: “Am I not a man and a brother?”
The Lunar Society promoted (some from personal experience of rejection) the fight of dissenters for repeal of the Test Acts, which banned dissenters from Oxford and Cambridge universities and from public office. They also welcomed the French Revolution. This radical activity contributed to their downfall. In July 1791, following a celebration of the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, Birmingham rioters razed Priestley’s New Meeting House and burnt his home and laboratory. In 1794 Priestley left for America, dedicating his last British work to the society. After this only rare meetings continued until about 1800. It was resurrected c.1990 by Dame Rachel Waterhouse.
Although other small academic enclaves existed in the 18th and 19th centuries, The Lunar Society was unique. “It was by far the most effective scientific association in Britain …The Royal Society having declined between 1700 and 1750”. Lunar members passionately believed that their discoveries would make the world a better place.1 Their vigorous, sometimes radical ideology anticipated and inspired a new class of nonconformist industrialists and reformers,9 notably the philanthropic Quakers,10 of nineteenth-century Britain and America. Practical in approach, they were a band of forward-looking, assertive provincial gentlemen, opposed to aristocratic privilege and formal tradition, who advanced science and industry in an unparalleled fashion. Their close friendship bred productivity and was reflected in 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 Samuel Galton (father of the geneticist Sir Francis Galton) who invented a color top.
This era of tiny groups of self-selected scholars has largely disappeared in recent years, perhaps sacrificing a source of unbridled originality and invention.
- Uglow Jenny. The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, London: Faber & Faber. 2002
- Burr SJ. Inspiring Lunatics: Biographical Portraits of the Lunar Society’s Erasmus Darwin, Thomas Day, and Joseph Priestley. Eighteenth-Century Life 2000;24 (2):111-127
- Schofield RE. The Lunar Society of Birmingham : a social history of provincial science and industry in eighteenth-century England, Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1963
- King-Hele DG. The Lunar Society of Birmingham. Nature 1966; No 5059:229-233.
- King-Hele D. The 1997 Wilkins Lecture: Erasmus Darwin, The Lunaticks and Evolution. Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond 1998;52(1):153-180.
- Pearce JMS. Polymathy in decline? Hektoen International. October 2013;Volume 5, Issue 4
- King-Hele D. G., ‘Erasmus Darwin, man of ideas, and inventor of words.’ Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 42 (1988), 149–80
- The original lunar society. http://www.lunarsociety.org.uk/about/the-original-lunar-society
- Porter RE. Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World, London: Penguin Books. 2001.
- Pearce JMS. Quakers in Medicine: ‘Friends of the truth’. York: Wm Sessions, Ebor Press. 2009.
J.M.S. PEARCE, MD, FRCP (London) is emeritus consultant neurologist in the Department of Neurology at the Hull Royal Infirmary, England. All correspondence to: 304 Beverley Road, Anlaby, East Yorkshire, HU10 7BG, England, or to my email address [jms.pearce[at]me[dot]com].