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Men in the Moon

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 makes the club around Dr. Johnson seem, by comparison, a nursery of competitiveness and pride.)

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.”2 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 petuntse3 tobacco pipes kaolin to stop them & a bit of China made of Cornish Soap rock (which can be had at £10 pr tun) & of petuntse but Quartz will do if pure. I send also a bit of pure pipe crumble converted into porcelaine by melting in window glass, Bone ashes, minimume & nitre, but which trick I cannot play again. Let Mr. B keep in his age a China Factory as a good trade.

Wedgwood, like his friends, also took an intelligent interest in chemical theory; but in the sphere of theory the license to speculate was absolute. One would not get laughed at for one’s conjectures, however extravagant. In this way an important danger to the friendship was removed.

Further, Boulton, Wedgwood, and Erasmus Darwin were all, in their own way, men of charm and skill in social relations. Boulton was a showman, loving to do the honors of his factory at Burslem for the “great” and visiting celebrities, and in a tough-talking style he kept on reasonably warm terms with his workers. As for Darwin, Lichfield’s famous polymath and physician, with a medical practice extending over the whole county, he was a supreme “networker”; it was largely through him that Birmingham attracted so many thinkers, reformers, and inventors. But the sociability was not merely worldly; nor were the group’s slogans—“Friends of Mankind, & of the Ingenious Arts,” and the like—just a sham. It is impressive that, when in 1769 Boulton threatened to become a commercial competitor to Wedgwood, Wedgwood quite relished the prospect. “It doubles my courage to have the first Manufacturor in England to encounter with,” he wrote to his partner Thomas Bentley:

The match likes me well. I like the Man, I like his spirit. He will not be a mere snivelling copyist like the antagonists I have hitherto had, but will venture to step out of the lines upon occasion, and afford us some diversion in the combat.

But then, much unlike their successors in the capitalist era, these Lunar industrialists by no means spent all their days in the countinghouse. They shared with their philosopher friends a passion for mineral-hunting and fossil-hunting, searching in the Derbyshire caves or the newly dug canal tunnels for “spath fusible”—an ingredient of porcelain—or mammoth bones, and forming conjectures about geology (an even more undeveloped science). “I have been into the Bowels of old Mother Earth,” writes Darwin to Boulton in 1767 in his usual florid style,

and seen Wonders and learnt much curious knowledge in the Regions of Darkness—…And am going to make innumerable Experiments on aquaeous, sulphureous, metallic and saline Vapours. Food for Fire-Engines!4

What strikes one is the extreme openness of outlook of the Lunar men; they made so little distinction between commercial ambition, freewheeling inventiveness, and the sheer rage of curiosity. Hence too their responsiveness to demand. The craze for French-style ormolu inspired a new style of pots from Wedgwood, designed to be mounted in gilt by Boulton; and the “vase-mania,” sparked off by Sir William Hamilton’s great collection of so-called “Etruscan” vases, set Wedgwood on the path of reduplicating classic vases and classic sculptures in pottery. Wedgwood built a new factory at this time, naming it Etruria. One of the greatest efforts of his career was to make, for grand patrons, fifty or so copies in jasper of the famous Portland vase, which was itself made of dark-blue glass, and to find ways of suggesting what was impossible actually to rival, the delicacy of its near-transparent white cameos. “Nothing can contribute more effectually to diffuse a good taste through the arts,” runs his catalog,

than the power of multiplying copies of fine things, in materials fit to be applied for ornaments; by which the public eye is instructed; good and bad works are nicely distinguished, and all the arts receive improvement.

For humbler customers, Wedgwood and Boulton reduced costs by offering an all-purpose assortment of ornaments and designs, and Wedgwood told his partner Bentley to avoid orders for “any particular kind of Vases …at least till we are got into a more methodicall way of making the same sorts over again.” Uglow quotes a remark of Wedgwood’s that “it is this sort of time loseing with Uniques which keeps ingenious Artists who are connected with Great men of taste poor.” On this she comments, “Good business worked against originality”; but here she seems to go a little astray, for originality, in the aesthetic sense, hardly comes into the matter. What is essential is imitation and mimicry, and by corollary reduplication, if not mass production. Uglow has, actually, some good paragraphs on this theme. “Copying, in its innumerable forms,” she says, “displays the very mind-set of this age. Experiments were judged by the principle that they should be repeatable; botanists and zoologists studied replication and variation”; etc., etc.

We are verging here on the theme of that great book, Hugh Kenner’s The Counterfeiters, which argues that the ruling concept in eighteenth-century culture was counterfeiting, as with the automaton. “The automaton,” writes Kenner, “simulates man when man has been defined in an automaton’s way.”5 Literary forgery came in here, for example James Macpherson’s pretended translation of a Gaelic epic by Ossian, Chatterton’s pseudo-medieval Rowley poems, and William Henry Ireland’s quickly exposed fabrications of poems and legal deeds by “Shakespeare.” Likewise satire. The most evident thing about Swift’s Gulliver, the emissary of the human race to kingdoms of giants and horses, is “his utter ignorance of everything save navigation, a little applied mathematics, and medicine.” Shall we think him a man, or merely the simulacrum of a man? If a factory worker does nothing in his life but spin threads, Kenner asks, “then just how is a thread-spinning machine not a purified man? And indeed it can replace him.”

It might be said that the central figure of the Lunar Society was Erasmus Darwin. He was, despite a bad stammer, a dominating and larger-than-life figure: certainly physically so, for he grew enormously fat, and like Saint Thomas Aquinas had to cut a semicircle out of his dining-table to make room for his stomach. He was a declared freethinker, but nevertheless greatly in demand as a doctor because of his reputation as a diagnostician. His poorer patients, however, he would treat free of charge. He was an assiduous keeper- up with scientific trends, his carriage always being crammed with books as well as hampers of food, and the young Coleridge, though he “nauseated” his poetry, considered him the most knowledgeable man of the age.

Invention was his passion, and his notebooks were filled with the wildest medley of speculations and “improvements.” He envisaged changing the wind-flow over Britain and towing icebergs to the equator, in order to cool it; but equally, in a practical manner, he was continually redesigning his own carriage—until eventually it crashed, fracturing his knee. He designed telescopic candlesticks and a new stocking frame, a mechanical bird, and a mechanical copying-machine.6

There is, though, a significant point here. One of the dedicatees of Uglow’s book is Desmond King-Hele, who in 1999 published a lengthy and enjoyable biography of Erasmus Darwin, with the subtitle “A Life of Unequalled Achievement.” But it is hard not to think of this as a misnomer. Darwin was undoubtedly a great force; but was he a great achiever? His design for a horizontal, as opposed to vertical, windmill was a modest success; and his networking and politicking on behalf of canal building were very effective. But most of his inventions, one feels, were simply expressions of joie de vivre. He constructed a speaking-machine, with a wooden mouth, leather lips, and a valve at the back for nostrils; it was able to pronounce the sounds p, b, m, and the vowel a. He theorized that if a really gigantic version were built it “might speak so loud as to command an army or instruct a crowd.” It was an appealing object of fantasy, but not exactly what the world would have felt it had long been needing. As an achiever Erasmus Darwin can hardly be compared with Watt, or even with Wedgwood.

Admittedly, King-Hele regarded Darwin’s poems as part of his achievement, and also his theories about evolution. But the poems, The Economy of Vegetation (about the elements of fire, earth, water, and air) and The Loves of the Plants (about the fertilization of flowers), seem to me a weird and dreadful affair. Darwin has taken over Pope’s mock-heroic manner, applying it to steam and electricity and the new French chemistry without the least feeling for how it was meant to function. He applies the complex patterning and syntax of Pope’s verse, with its antitheses, ironic concessions, and subtle discriminations, to subject matter to which they have not the slightest relevance.

He clothes the matter-of-fact, like the functioning of a water pump, in grandiose verbiage. (“Press’d by the incumbent air the floods below/ Through opening valves in foaming torrents flow”) and brings in the gnomes and sylphs from The Rape of the Lock as if they were the sort of thing that had to be present in all poetry. He is arch, to a quite maddening degree, about the sexuality of flowers. It is Darwin, as much as any poet, who is being flayed in the 1800 preface to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads for “gaudy and inane phraseology,” “arbitrary and capricious habits of expression,” and “transitory and accidental ornaments.” It is true that Wordsworth borrowed the plot of “Goody Blake and Harry Gill” (in which the robust young Harry is punished for his mistreatment of the poor old lady Goody Blake by suffering from unceasing chills) from Darwin’s Zoonomia, a prose work; but that is hardly to the point.

About Darwin’s verse, Uglow seems to go along some of the way with King-Hele, but she wisely refrains from saying much about his evolutionary theories. These, which are mainly to be found in his Zoonomia and the posthumous poem The Temple of Nature, are of great interest. He has hit on the evanescence of species, as revealed by fossil evidence, and the enormous tract of time that evolution would require. He is fertile, too, in examples of species adaptation, though too inclined to speak of it in terms of “purpose.” But it is all no more than a set of sketchy hypotheses; and it is significant that when Charles Darwin wrote a biography of him he did not even mention his evolutionary writings.7 It is simply not sensible of King-Hele to write that Erasmus Darwin was “nearer the modern view [of the theory of evolution] than either Lamarck…or his own grandson Charles.”8

James Boswell visited Boulton’s factory at Soho in 1776 and was unforgettably impressed by Boulton’s saying, with a wave of his arm toward the vast machines and his seven hundred workers: “I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have—POWER.” The grim thought, “What all the world desires to have,” i.e., desires for his or her self, is that of Wagner’s Alberich in The Ring and was to haunt nineteenth-century Europe. There is a kind of pathos in the contrast between this view and the mild, millennial, and profoundly unrealistic attitude toward power of Joseph Priestley, who could only think of it as a shared and communal blessing. Through enlightened government and Adam Smith’s division of labor, he wrote,

All knowledge will be subdivided and extended; and knowledge, as Lord Bacon observes, being power, the human powers will, in fact, be enlarged; nature, including both its materials, and its laws, will be more at our command; men will make their situation in this world abundantly more easy and comfortable…. Thus, whatever was the beginning of this world, the end will be glorious and paradisiacal, beyond what our imaginations can now conceive.

Priestley was before all else a religious thinker, with a fervent conviction that Christianity had been corrupted soon after its birth by Saint Paul’s false theology and by the importing of the heathen concept of a soul. In his eyes all that human perfectibility required was the search for truth, in other words for the evidence of God’s providence, and the machine revealed this just as clearly as Nature, indeed it was a part of Nature. He was thus completely open, in good Lunar style, about his chemical gropings and discoveries, even publishing details of his failed experiments. It was his frank disclosures about “dephlogisticated air” (i.e., oxygen) that enable Lavoisier to initiate a “chemical revolution” and dismantle the whole theory of phlogiston, and it was a sign of the decline of the Lunar movement that Priestley and his friends could not bring themselves to follow him.

But the truth, providential or otherwise, was not on Priestley’s but on Boulton’s side. It was easy to think of water power or wind power, on which large-scale industry had so far depended, as belonging to God. Equally, earlier machines, like the remarkable stocking frame invented by William Lee in the days of Queen Elizabeth, were in a sense tools. The operator had to control the stocking frame by hand; and the same is true of Newcomen’s first steam engines; the letting of steam into, and expelling of steam from, the cylinder in these engines required manual operation. But the independent and self-regulating steam engine, untiringly aimed at and at last achieved by James Watt, in partnership with Boulton, had quite another character. It suggested a rival to God’s power; and—as William Blake sensed and as would become undeniable a half-century later—it reversed its relation to the operator, turning him or her into a tool.

All the Lunar stories overlap,” writes Uglow; and her great achievement is to make a single story of them, with convincing naturalness and the strictest though unobtrusive control, almost never dipping into irrelevance, and always ready to expound technical theory where the reader needs it. As a stylist, as we know from her Hogarth,9 she has a weakness for “color,” but there is plenty of room for it here, for her characters (including supporting ones like the inventor Richard Lovell Edgeworth and the Rousseauian Thomas Day, author of Sandford and Merton) are a colorful lot. But prose with “color” needs to tell one something that one needs to know, and this is hardly true of “As the leaves turned, falling on the still Lichfield ponds, Polly took her boys to stay with the Boultons.” (It is unlikely that the Lichfield ponds were stiller than ponds anywhere else.) Moreover, almost the first words of her book give a description of the great frost of 1739–1740, and it is very nicely written; but, so far as one can see, it is without the faintest relevance to anything to come. Still, if this is a foible, it is a very venial one, on the part of a serious and enthralling writer.

  1. 1

    In 1785 Erasmus Darwin was attacked for plagiarism by a member of the Lunar group, the botanist William Withering.

  2. 2

    Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (third edition, University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 13.

  3. 3

    The famous Chinese spar pai-tun-tzu.

  4. 4

    I.e., steam engines.

  5. 5

    Hugh Kenner, The Counterfeiters (Indiana University Press, 1968), p. 40.

  6. 6

    It actually worked, though, typically, when James Watt heard about it he outdid it with an entirely different model, chemical rather than mechanical, which continued in use until the advent of carbon paper.

  7. 7

    Charles Darwin’s biography forms the “Preliminary Notice” to W.S. Dallas’s translation of Ernst Krause’s Erasmus Darwin (John Murray, 1879). Krause himself, of course, discusses the evolutionary writings.

  8. 8

    The Essential Writings of Erasmus Darwin, edited by Desmond King-Hele (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1968), p. 82.

  9. 9

    Hogarth: A Life and a World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997).

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