The Lunar Society

Following the society's Annual General meeting on the evening of 22nd February we were entertained to a highly informative lecture by Rita McLean, the Head of Community Museums for Birmingham City Council, on the Lunar Society. As head of community museums Rita is responsible for Soho House in Handsworth and her interest in the Lunar Society sprang from her increasing curiosity into the origins of this famous organisation.

Members of the Lunar society met regularly in the latter half of the 18th century to discuss a wide range of issues of the day. The meetings were hosted by Matthew Bolton at his home at Soho House. It would certainly be wrong to assume that they were all scientists, although the Society contained a sprinkling of them, but there were also men of letters - interested in the philosophical, political and other issues of the day. Yes, to confirm a common rumour, they did meet on the nights of a full moon to enable their travel back to their own homes, sometimes over long distances, to be easier.

Rita's exploration of the Lunar Society read like a 'Who is Who' of pre-eminent men of the 18th century. Indeed there was hardly anyone of pre-eminence alive at that time who was not a member of the Society. Of course we in Lichfield think of Erasmus Darwin as one of the most famous members of the Lunar Society. A physician, poet, botanist, educationalist and biologist he was a true polyglot whose involvement with the engineer James Watt was central to Watt's arrival in Birmingham from distant Scotland to work with Matthew Bolton in the development of steam power at the latter's manufactury in Handsworth.

Matthew Bolton, also of course a member of the Lunar Society, had established his manufacturing operations at Handsworth in the mid 18th century; manufacturing a wide range of metal-based objects but initially depending on water power for energy. As his manufacturing activities grew so the need for a more reliable source of energy became paramount. So he turned to the new-fangled steam engines to provide that power and developed his relationship with James Watt. From Rita's description of this famous duo we can draw the conclusion that Matthew Bolton was outward-going, optimistic and entrepreneurial whilst James Watt was very much the introspective partner, full of self-doubts, and it took the skillful correspondence of Erasmus Darwin to convince Watt that he should move to Birmingham and develop his partnership with Matthew Bolton. Thus the Soho manufactury, dealing with a wide range of metal goods from small artefacts, silverware and eventually including the construction of steam engines, became one of the largest manufacturers of its type in the world.

But we must not ignore the importance of other members of the Society. John Whitehurst, the Derby based clock and scientific instrument maker, developed new techniques for accurate scientific measurement which were crucial when developing new products needing sensitive admixtures of raw materials. William Small, Scots by birth and a physician, taught science in the infant United States to such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson before returning to Birmingham and supporting James Watt in the development of steam engine design. Joseph Priestly is perhaps one of the more well known members of the Lunar Society. One of the most talented scientists of his day he moved to Birmingham in 1783 and undertook much practical research that could be applied in both the Soho works and other manufacturies. Not a wealthy man, his Unitarian background eventually saw him driven from Birmingham by the mob. His house was burnt down and by 1790 he had left Britain for the United States. Josiah Wedgwood is of course known to all for his pre-eminence in pottery manufacturing but perhaps few of us realise that he was also a member of the Lunar Society, applying in practice the ideas of the scientists with whom he shared evening discussions at Society meetings.

There were other members of the Society who are perhaps less well known. Richard Edgworth was a designer of carriages who also developed new telegraphic systems. James Keir owned glassworks in the Midlands and Thomas Day was a political and social reformer who amongst other treatises wrote critically of the slave trade. Later they were joined by William Withering, a physician who effectively replaced William Small who had died. Withering may not be know to us but his use of digitalis for the treatment of heart disease perhaps is.

So the Lunar Society was an informal gathering of friends who met together to discuss ideas. A society of self-made, self-educated men whose impact on the economic and social development of England in the late 18th century was far beyond that which one would expect from such a small group. Indeed their impact spread overseas and there is strong evidence to believe that Benjamin Franklin was an occasional visitor to the Lunar Society.

The Society was perhaps at its peak between the 1750s and the 1780s. But with the departure of James Priestly and the death of William Small, together with the ageing of many friends, the Society was not as vital by the 1790s and went into active decline by the beginning of the 19th century. Rita told us that surprisingly, apart from one book written in the early 1960s, there was no up-to-date history of the Lunar Society. If any of our membership have nothing to do on a wet Sunday afternoon why not gain pre-eminence in writing the Lunar Society's history! I suspect that, given the individuals involved, the history of the Lunar Society would make an extremely watchable television series.

Roger Hockney
February 2001