The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World
by Jenny Uglow
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,588 pp., $30.00
The “five friends” of Jenny Uglow’s title are the manufacturer of metal goods Matthew Boulton (1728–1809); the potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730– 1795); the physician Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), grandfather of the author of On the Origin of Species; Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), the Unitarian preacher, experimental chemist, and political radical; and James Watt (1736–1819), the great advancer of the steam engine. The scene of their friendship was Birmingham and its environs. In the mid-eighteenth century Birmingham was a fast-expanding city of traders and manufacturers, helped in this by the fact that it had no city charter or ancient craft guilds with their restrictive rules: there was a saying that “any fool can make money in Birmingham.” The first three of the friends made their entire careers there and were joined by Watt (upon the death of his wife) in 1774 and by Priestley in 1780; and so important to them was this friendship that in 1775, with some others, they formed themselves into a “Lunar Society,” meeting every month on the Sunday nearest the full moon, to give them light to ride home by.
This friendship, as Jenny Uglow claims in her excellent and fascinating (also beautifully illustrated) book, was important not only to the Lunar men but to Britain, and even to the world—for it would not be absurd to call it, for good or evil, the origin of the Industrial Revolution. I stress the friendship, for—unexpectedly on the part of such ambitious men—it was a real and solid one and, with one exception, more or less unbroken.^1
It was a continual surprise to these men how many interests, of a scientific kind, they had in common. Nor need we think this an illusion, but it was helped by very special circumstances. For one thing, high on the list of their interests were electricity and chemistry, and in the mid-eighteenth century, as Thomas Kuhn has argued, it was not yet clear what those terms really meant. They had not yet acquired a “universally received paradigm.” One group of theories regarded electricity as having to do with friction; another thought it involved attraction and repulsion; a third conceived it as conduction of a “fluid.” It was not till the work of Benjamin Franklin and his followers that electricity could have been seen as embracing all three. Likewise, until the work of Lavoisier in the 1770s, chemistry lacked exact measurement and indeed, unlike Newtonian physics, was still largely unmathematical.
In his quest for new mineral “bodies” and glazes for pottery, Wedgwood, by intuitive or hit-or-miss methods, made very valuable chemical discoveries, being greatly helped in this by his Lunar friends, who would send him crates and hampers of assorted materials. This indeed was a favorite habit within the circle. When Matthew Boulton became interested in porcelain-making, Watt sent him a bundle of this kind, writing:
I shall also send petuntse tobacco pipes kaolin to stop them & a bit of China made of …