These ‘lunatics’ weren’t wild and crazy

Although the society was quite small, it was probably the most formidable assemblage of science and technology brain power ever to present papers and argue scientific discoveries–then and now!

Apr 1st, 2009
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Although the society was quite small, it was probably the most formidable assemblage of science and technology brain power ever to present papers and argue scientific discoveries–then and now!

By Jeff Bairstow

I have to admit to at least one lifelong obsession–I love lending libraries. Big or small, rational or idiosyncratic, popular or academic, I have loved libraries ever since I began to read and, almost simultaneously, discovered an unheated, windowless room filled with books in the basement of the decrepit Mechanics Institute in the crumbling Yorkshire mill village where I grew up. I love the random connections one can make in a few hours of nosing around a library.

Eventually, in my dank and drab village library, I discovered the Children’s Encyclopedia, with its muddy sepia photographs of exotic faraway places and its poorly printed cutaway drawings of steam locomotives and airplanes. Each discovery led to another and another. I was reminded recently of those early library days when, on my weekly neighborhood library visit, I picked up an unusual book entitled The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson (Penguin, New York, NY, 2008).

What caught my eye as I scanned the book in the library was a reference to the “Lunaticks” or, more politely, the “Lunar Society of Birmingham.” Now, I spent my undergraduate years in Birmingham but I had never heard of the Lunaticks. A little research rapidly revealed that the Lunar Society was an informal group of leading scientists and industrialists who met monthly between 1765 and 1813 to discuss the rapid changes in scientific research and technology developments of the time. They chose to meet during the full moon so as to make use of its illumination as the members navigated Birmingham’s muddy streets. These lunatics were definitely not madmen.

But, just who were these “lunatics?” Although the society was quite small–perhaps only 14 regular members–it was probably the most formidable assemblage of science and technology brain power ever to present papers and argue scientific discoveries–then and now! Charter members were Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin), Matthew Boulton (engineer and manufacturer extraordinaire), and William Small (a leading doctor who mentored Thomas Jefferson). Subsequent members included James Watt, the steam-engine builder, Joseph Priestley, the chemist and noted dissenter, Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery entrepreneur, and Charles Darwin, the anthropologist.

One example of the extraordinary exchange of new developments was the production of accurately machined cylinders by the iron-master John Wilkinson for James Watt’s early steam engines. Without the accuracy of Wilkinson’s boring machine and the financial backing of Matthew Boulton, Watt would never have achieved the tight seal between piston and cylinder that made his steam engines possible. All three men met at Lunar Society meetings.

But the Lunar Society meetings were far from boring. Darwin, in apologizing for missing a meeting, is reported to have written: “Lord, what invention, what wit, what rhetoric, metaphysical, mechanical, and pyrotechnical, will be on the wing, bandied about like a shuttlecock from one to another of your troupe of philosophers.” Eventually, in 1813, the Lunar Society died a natural death as, one-by-one, the original founders passed away.

If you would like to know more about the Lunaticks, I recommend a 2003 BBC Radio 4 program available at www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/inourtime_20030605.shtml. One of the participants in this program is the British historian Jenny Uglow, the author of the definitive (600 page) book The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, (Faber & Faber, London, 2002).

In the course of further research, I discovered that the Lunar Society has recently been revived in Birmingham by the indefatigable Dame Rachel Waterhouse, former chairperson of the British Consumers Association. Dame Rachel seems to have revived the society to promote science and technology attributes of her native city. In my view, Birmingham appears to have missed the major science and technology revolutions of the 20th Century. However, that’s another story.

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Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
inmyview@yahoo.com

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