Uglow, Jenny: The Lunar Men

The host introduced the prize-winning book which was a group biography of the 18th century experimenter members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham who met on the Mo(o)nday night nearest to the full moon. This was to facilitate their often lengthly journeys home after society meetings, and well illustrates their energy and enthusiasm. For example, Erasmus Darwin travelled some 10000 miles a year on horseback carrying out his medical duties.

 The general response to the book was that it was a highly enjoyable, informative and fascinating work. The individual stories of the Lunar men were well told and the positive group dynamics well brought out. There was general agreement also, however, that it was a long and hard read, with a great deal of detail which sometimes resulted in confusion, though the structure and chronology of the book were well done. The difficulties were probably an inevitable consequence of collective biography, particularly when there were so many important Lunar men. Despite this the members were enthusiastic about the book which sparked off a lively wide-ranging discussion.

 Many members present were interested in the Enlightenment, especially in its Scottish manifestation. The strong connections between the Lunar men and Scotland were well brought out in the book. The intellectual ideas of many of the luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment, eg Adam Smith, James Hutton, Joseph Black and James Watt’s circle in Glasgow had been hugely influential upon the Lunar men. As Jenny Uglow wrote, “ At times it would seem as though Birmingham itself was an intellectual colony of Scotland.” It was pointed out- by a member not the author- that one reason for this was that many of the Lunar men were dissenters and as such excluded from Oxford and Cambridge but welcome in the Scottish Universities.

 While many of those present were students of the Enlightenment, the focus of the book was on the practical application of Enlightenment ideas in areas such as medicine, geology, physics and chemistry. The Lunar men were highly enthusiastic, energetic and practical. Examples of this were their efforts to influence politicians on Parliamentary Private Bills and the granting of patents. There was discussion as to whether Watt’s patents had hastened or hindered the development of the steam engine.

 The book brought out well the ideas of the various Lunar men though not what they discussed at society meetings. An interesting point was the effect of the French Revolution upon them. Not only did this event divide the Lunar men in their responses, but it also had an adverse effect on their discussions and work. As Henry Cockburn, quoted in the book, said: “Everything was connected with the Revolution in France. Everything, not this thing or that thing, but literally everything was soaked in this one event.” The revolutionary scientific work of the Lunar men was identified as also politically revolutionary, with adverse consequences for Priestley, Darwin and others, as the more secular, rational 18th century was replaced by a more conservative, religious outlook.