Reviewed by John Bedell
There are ages in human history when it seems nothing can be done. The dreary round of wars and oppressions grinds on, and hope of real change is a will-o-the-wisp that serves mainly to lure optimists to disaster. Great efforts come to naught; schemes unravel; voyages of discovery sink in storms; reform recedes ever into the future; grand plans are undermined by reaction, starved by poverty, and buffeted by violence, and ground down by indifference. Yet there are also in history extraordinary moments when everything seems possible and change advances with startling speed. One of these was the late 1700s. Democracy and reform were in the air, but politics had not yet settled into the trench warfare of revolution and reaction that would dominate the next century. Industry was booming, but wages were rising and most work was still done by skilled adults; steam power was being perfected, but had not yet clogged the skies with soot. Science was advancing rapidly yet amateurs could still recreate cutting-edge experiments in their living rooms. Serious men wrote books about a coming utopian age, when democracy and science would perfect our world. The eighteenth-century world had its horrors, from smallpox to the slave trade. But in that era the promise of modernity was in the air, its terrible price not yet even guessed at.
Of late I have been much distracted by the woes of my own time, too agitated to be of much of use to anyone. The one thing that has held my attention has been The Lunar Men, a wonderful book by British writer Jenny Uglow. I am in awe of this book, and of her. The Lunar Men takes us to Birmingham, England between about 1760 and 1794, where a small group of men were for a time able to achieve wonderful things and to imagine that progress would stretch from their own time up a smooth road to future perfection.
The characters at the center of The Lunar Men were all born between 1728 and 1736. They are Erasmus Darwin, doctor, mechanical wizard, botanist, evolutionary theorist and grandfather of Charles; Matthew Boulton, metal manufacturer; James Watt, a Scottish engineer who made great improvements to the steam engine and then entered into partnership with Boulton to manufacture them; Josiah Wedgwood, pioneer of mass production in pottery and leading opponent of slavery; and Joseph Priestley, chemist and dissenting preacher. Some of them met through the effort to build canals through the Midlands, in which all were involved; others were introduced by mutual connections. From 1775 to 1794 they met at each other’s houses on the Monday night closest to the full moon, so as to drive home by its light. When they met they did scientific experiments and argued over their own results, or over results and theories they read about from all over the world. Chemistry exercised them most, especially Priestley’s work on gases and the debate between Priestley and Lavoisier over combustion and the composition of matter. They also explored electricity, geology, mineralogy, botany, and medicine; perhaps the most important discovery to emerge from their circle was the effect of digitalis on the heart, identified by young doctor William Withering with Darwin’s help. They all drew on each other’s inspiration in many ways. Priestley perhaps spoke for all when acknowledged his friends in the preface to his most famous book, saying that the society was “almost an equal partner” in his work.
The Lunar Men is a dense, massive book, 500 pages in which anecdote follows anecdote at a furious pace. Besides science there is much about business, especially Wedgwood’s potteries and Boulton & Watt’s steam engine works. Both made great technical advances, but they were always only a step ahead of many rivals, for this was age of furious competition when to be six months ahead or behind made the difference between riches and bankruptcy. There is also politics; united by love of science, these men were diverse in their political views. All were generally on the side of reform, but some were radicals, especially Priestley, and others, especially Boulton, more comfortable with the establishment. Uglow also draws in much about the private lives of these men. Most of her books have been biographies, we get in this one book a decent biography of all five main characters. As they made the inventions or wrote the books that insured their fame, they were courting and marrying, raising children, skating on the edge of financial ruin, and experiencing the tragic losses that were so much a part of every life at the time. All the men lost children, and most lost their first wives. They consoled each other with heartfelt letters, and always gave each other the same advice: get back to work. There had to be some time off to mourn, but real, long-term healing was found only in throwing yourself back into science and business. I found this interweaving of career success and personal loss fascinating and deeply moving. I have the sense that the trials of life in the old regime, with so much death and loss, were like a winnowing. The weak gave up and died young, sad, and defeated, but the strong forged on.
All of Uglow’s subjects were amazing men. Darwin was a mechanical genius, inventing among other things the gas turbine and a steering system that would one day be used in most of our cars. When an extremely bright meteor blazed a trail over Europe, he paused in his experimental gardening to triangulate its height about the earth as 58 miles, which was probably about right. His work on botany convinced him that all life was descended from a common ancestor. The discovery of evolution’s main mechanism was left to his famous grandson, but the fact of evolution was perfectly clear to him. Wedgwood brought experimental science into the potteries, drawing on chemistry and geology to perfect new kinds of ceramic and new ways of organizing labor to manufacture it faster and cheaper. His new jasper ware (above right) had to be fired at just the right temperature, but there was no technology available for measuring such heat; so Wedgwood invented one, using clay that changed color with increasing temperature. Wedgwood was a younger son who inherited nothing and started as an apprentice in his older brother’s pottery, yet his elder daughter’s dowry was £25,000. Boulton and Watt, after years of struggle during which Watt worked as a canal surveyor and Boulton spent much of his energy keeping creditors at bay, eventually emerged even richer. Their engines were mechanical marvels, five times as efficient as anything that had come before. Priestley appears in every one-volume history of science. Think what those meetings must have been like: so much scientific firepower, backed by so much experience of business and knowledge of the world, tongues loosened by real friendship. We have no records, but working from their frequent letters and their voluminous journals, Uglow gives us a sense of the wonder.
The moment of freedom that energized the Lunar Men was closed off in the 1790s. War with revolutionary France led to economic hard times and a surge of conservative xenophobia in Britain. Mobs of unemployed workers, encouraged by conservative preachers and Tory politicians, smashed the newfangled factories and burned the houses of radicals like Priestley and chemical manufacturer James Keir, another member of the club. The Lunar Men stood up for each other as best they could in this crisis. Boulton and Wedgwood risked their own lives and slots in the establishment by giving shelter to Priestley and Keir, and Boulton mobilized his own mostly loyal workmen to carry Keir’s library and scientific instruments to safety. They were too late to help Priestley, though, and he lost everything. Viciously attacked in the press and fearing prosecution, he fled to America in 1794. That same year his great rival Lavoisier was guillotined during the Terror; one of the items introduced into evidence against him was his extensive correspondence with fellow scientists in Britain. The dual persecution of the age’s two greatest chemists, both accused of treasonable dealings with foreigners, brought to an end the international era of the Enlightenment and set the stage for growing nationalism.
The Lunar Men is a breathtaking glimpse of the industrial revolution as it took off, and of the society it emerged from. This group portrait of friends who shared a passion for science shows like no other book I have read the tangled connections of industry, politics, money, scientific advancement, technical progress, and sentimental family life that, in Uglow words, "nudged their whole society and culture over the threshold of the modern." It is the best book I have ever read on the eighteenth century.
October 5, 2013
I shall never forget Mr Boulton's expression to me: "I sell here, Sir, what all the world desies to have -- Power."--James Boswell, 1774