The Lunar Society of Birmingham

There were twelve of them, not counting close friends. They were the leading entrepreneurs, inventors, philosophers and scientists of the eighteenth century - and they enjoyed a good meal after an afternoon's conversation before the moonlit drive home! Diana Perowne filled our September speaker's slot with a talk on the Birmingham Lunar Society which produced some very different insights into its members. We all Immediately think of Erasmus Darwin, Lichfield's own member of the Society. His rotundity and joviality hid a probing and sharp mind, occupied with wide ranging interests. Although well known as a physician, botanist and meteorologist, he became particularly interested in transport, both road-based as well as canal-based. His work with fellow Society member Josiah Wedgwood culminated in the construction of one of the first major canals in England - the Trent & Mersey. Driven by the need to safely transport precious cargoes of pottery and ornamental ware other than by wagon over the rough roads Wedgewood and Darwin, with considerable expert assistance from England's leading canal engineer James Brindley, constructed the Trent & Mersey Canal to transport Josiah's finished goods both west and east to the principal ports. Josiah's factory in Etruria was a market leader in innovation and pottery production. Down to earth and "hands on" with his work, Wedgwood experimented endlessly (his records survive) in his drive to develop new products and improve existing ones. His fame spread worldwide, with his products following.

Wedgwood's factory needed power and that was supplied by James Watt's newfangled steam engines. Watt was an unusual person to join this convivial Society. He was neurotic, a "worrier", and uncomfortable in company, but this belied a keen engineering mind, which found its full potential in his partnership with Matthew Boulton our next Society member. He was outward going, full of ideas and a risk taker; the very opposite of James Watt. From his origins as a silversmith, he developed a worldwide business manufacturing small, often high value, metal goods in his "manufactory" at Soho, before branching out into coin production for countries across the world at a new Birmingham mint. The Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham stands as his enduring legacy.

But what of the other eight Society members? John Whitehurst was a self trained Derby instrument maker with a strong interest in minerals and geology. His knowledge of instrumentation allowed Wedgewood and Boulton to control the temperature of production processes and accurately measure the quantities of raw materials required; skills we take for granted today. Older than our main players, he was looked on as a wiser, more experienced person from whom advice could be sought. Dr. William Small was a Scottish doctor who returned from teaching natural philosophy at Williamsburg University, Virginia, (to Thomas Jefferson amongst others) to set up a medical practice in Birmingham (via London where he met Benjamin Franklin). Small and slight, he became Boulton's physician and confidant. An unassuming person, only one small portrait of him exists. No slouch at mathematics nor chemistry, he quickly became an adviser and contributor to the development of new manufacturing techniques. The gap caused by Small's early death brought a new member to the Society - William Withering. A doctor at Stafford infirmary, Darwin found a new post for him in Birmingham and "head hunted" him into the Society when learning of his interests in botany and minerals. Working with Darwin, he identified the medical properties of Foxgloves - digitalis. Reserved and austere, the intensity of his commitment to his researches did lead to a strained relationship with Darwin.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth was a prolific yet headstrong Irish inventor who got to know Darwin through the latter's improvements to carriages. Full of ideas, but something of a rake, he was married four times, siring 20 children. He introduced to the Society his close friend Thomas Day. Melancholy, suspicious, dishevelled and eccentric, Day was a wealthy man. He was a political idealist, anti slave campaigner and educationalist. Then there was Scotsman James Keir, a Stourbridge metallurgist, with glass and soap manufacturing interests, who eventually had factories in the Black Country and worked with Bouton at Soho.

Last but by no means least, comes the father of chemistry, Joseph Priestly. A Unitarian minister, he was a slight, eager, man who seemed destined for teaching or the priesthood. He was however irresistibly drawn towards chemistry. His experiments were manyfold; isolating oxygen, discovering nitric acid, propounding the theory of photosynthesis and developing electricity are well known. Perhaps the technique for carbonating water with carbon dioxide less so! His religious beliefs eventually exposed him to local criticism, culminating in a mob ransacking his house at Fair Hill in Handsworth, setting it ablaze, as part of four days of riots in Birmingham. Losing all of his papers and experiments, Priestley was set up in London by his friends, but eventually emigrated to the USA.

Diana's one hour presentation could never do justice to one of the most famous scientific societies of all time. Nevertheless, she did manage to paint a picture of convivial evenings, possibly very alcoholic, spent among friends discussing issues of great importance. These men were truly at the cutting edge of science and philosophy and in many ways are a prevailing influence in our world today.

Roger Hockney
September 2012