I like curious people. I like people who ask lots of questions, search for answers and wonder about all kinds of things.
Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World is about a group of men in the 18th century who were incorrigible experimenters and questioners in just about every subject—chemistry, geology, biology, education, religion. And in a time when there were no such things as professional scientists, these dedicated amateurs—or natural philosophers, as they called themselves—made discoveries about things that we now easily take for granted.
Think about it—it’s hard to imagine a time when people didn’t know what oxygen is, and therefore didn’t know what water was made of. The composition of the earth was something vague and barely understood, and steam was something to be wrestled with endlessly. But these were the kind of problems tackled by the men in England’s Midlands, around Birmingham, who met once a month, on the Monday nearest the full moon.
Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, James Keir, James Watt, Richard Edgeworth, and Thomas Day were some of the Lunar Society’s core members. The “lunatics,” as Darwin sometimes called them, were all involved in different businesses (day jobs, you might say). Darwin was a doctor who fancied himself a bit of a poet. Boulton was a toy manufacturer (at the time, toy referred generally to small items such as buckles, buttons, candlesticks, medallions) who built a sprawling factory complex and jumped into various business ventures with a gambler’s spirit. Wedgwood created pottery for kings and the striving middle class and had a bent for marketing. Watt was an engineer before the term was used much who was as anxious about money as Boulton was free with it. Priestley was a preacher whose beliefs eventually got him in trouble. Keir was a doctor who dabbled in chemistry. Edgeworth, a member of the Irish gentry, wrote and toyed with various machines. Day, independently wealthy, experimented with people (he wins the loopiest experiment award for his idea that he could create the perfect wife by adopting two female orphans and raising them according to Rousseauian beliefs. Unsurprisingly, neither grew into the kind of wife he desired, who apparently was a combination of simple mountain shepherdess, Spartan woman, and Roman heroine with a taste for literature and science. All right, then.)
The experiments and studies the men did were for knowledge’s sake, but often had their roots in business. Of course Watt was trying to create a product he could sell when he built the steam engine, but the experience led to a greater understanding of temperature and air. Wedgwood and Boulton learned about chemical properties of various substances while working on new colors and processes for their wares. And all of their experiments were part of a new way of thinking about science, about not just trying things randomly, but working systematically through a series of experiments, recording results and trying to get results to repeat.
No member of the group was glued to any single topic. Rather, they tended to jump around with the latest fads. Everyone developed a sudden vogue for studying the strata of rocks in a quarry. Everyone suddenly collected fossils (collecting was big, and the men often recruited their children or friends’ children to find samples of things. Mary Galton recalled how she and others were roped into collecting fungi, a boring task that they enlivened by painting the samples with different chemical compounds before handing them over, in order to fool William Withering, the oh so serious collector). Everyone experimented with air. Electricity became the next big thing, and Leyden jars and shocking people was the trend; a visit from Benjamin Franklin, during his time in London before the Revolution, was an absolute necessity. When Carl Linnaeus completed his method for categorizing plants, botany became the rage. When the Montgolfier brothers flew their balloon in France, the Lunar men built their own balloons. Always tinkering with drawings and coming up with ideas, they tried to create copying machines, talking machines, mechanical carriages and mechanical birds. The men shared their ideas by letter and at meetings, passing results around and making suggestions to others. It was not unlike the way people now work with open-source software.
Lunar Society satellite Joseph Wright painted natural philosophers at work: "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" (1768)
Outside of the homemade labs, the men all had busy personal lives. It seemed like each one married two or three times and had about eight children with each wife--hence the accumulation of so many wives, I would imagine (Darwin tossed in an affair with a maid and two illegitimate daughters for good measure). They tended to be involved fathers with their multitude of children, trying to share their discoveries with them (when it came to wives and daughters, the general attitude seemed to be that it was good for them to have enough knowledge to understand what the men were doing and to be able to help occasionally, but they were not expected to contribute or work on their own. This would have annoyed me greatly and I would have loved to play with all these new ideas, but undoubtedly would have been too busy sewing or scrubbing floors up in the convent where I surely would have been doomed to spend my days). Darwin and Wedgwood, close friends, hoped while they were alive that a daughter and son would marry, and that happened after the men’s deaths; Robert Darwin and Susannah Wedgwood were the parents of Charles, the most famous Darwin now.
Of course the 18th century wasn’t just a time of scientific change, but also one of political upheaval. The American Revolution caused some dissent amongst the group, but the French Revolution led to much worse. Priestley, labeled a radical thinker, had his home burned, and pursued by a rioting mob, had to run for his life; eventually he followed his sons to America. And that was seen as the beginning of the end for the group. Some members died. Others became preoccupied with family members, health and money. The incoming Romantics didn’t have much patience with the Enlightenment natural philosophers who wanted to take everything apart to find out how it worked rather than appreciate beauty in nature. To the lunar men and those who thought like them, though, knowing and understanding was its own kind of beauty.
Uglow, whose biography of Hogarth I read a few years ago, is a good writer who does an admirable job pulling together all the different ideas and thoughts, as well as the giant cast of characters; all have their moment, though Darwin, Wedgwood and Boulton are unquestionably the stars. The book is organized neatly and has some lovely colored plates, a helpful chronology, and a good index (you know I obsess about indexes and bibliographies). Uglow also puts the men’s work into the context of the times—in order to understand what pushed Wedgwood to keep experimenting with different types of glazes, it helps to see the world in which things such as copies of Greek vases can become a fashionable, must-have item (and Wedgwood made sure that everyone could have the must-have item, creating a high-end product that he sold to the rich and noteworthy, and then, once the trend was established, a cheaper version for the masses; it was not unlike today when high-fashion designers create cheap lines for stores like Target and H&M). I never was particularly interested in china and ceramics, but after seeing how much work went into developing the different styles and how the creations reflected 18th century obsessions, I think I should find out more.
I liked this book but for some reason, never really felt involved in it; as I read, I felt like my mind was constantly elsewhere (and you don’t want to know where). Considering how much I appreciate thinkers like these curious men, it seems like I should have gotten a lot more out the book; I know big chunks of it just floated by without really making an impression on me. I don’t think it was the fault of the book. I think it was me. Maybe I am too curious and too busy puzzling out some of the things going on now to really devote my mind to past problems, such as phlogiston and steam engines; I am as always stuck on my own treadmill of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings, and I have not found any of my own answers yet.
Joseph Wright: "A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery" (1766)