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The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future 1730-1810 Paperback – 4 Sep 2003
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A colourful and hugely entertaining read. -- Focus
A magnificently accomplished and enjoyable book. -- Sunday Telegraph
An absolute wonder of a book. -- Economist
An astonishing feat of research, inquiry and fact-collecting . . . The Lunar Men is a considerable historical achievement. -- Literary Review
An irresistible book, rich as a Christmas pudding in its detail. -- Spectator
Jenny Uglow escapes into the past with the skill of a master storyteller in this beautifully written book. -- Birmingham Post
This is an exhilarating book, filled with wonders. Jenny Uglow is the most perfect historian imaginable. -- The Times
The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow is a vivid group portrait that brings to life the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a group of eighteenth-century amateur experimenters led by the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin.See all Product description
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That gripe aside, the book is very well written and structured. Compelling.
Dr Mike Sutton is author of
Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret
Fascinating in revealing how these individuals came to know each other, he book also shows these important achievers as men, with insights into their characters, how that influenced their actions, how their relationships developed and changed; also how their largely non-Conformist background was able to propel them to the forefront of scientific discovery and how it influenced their politics. "The Lunar Men" shows not only how the Enlightenment illuminated intellectual curiosity and discovery but, in the way some of the Lunar Men challenged the norm and the Establishment, how the political suppression of their view of a freer society caused the separation of science from daily living and the irrational mistrust and patronizing view of scientists by the uneducated since.
I would have liked to have learned more about how they found the time away from their daily work, how they interacted personally (but \i suppose that would have been speculation) and how they could stimulate each other's investigative nature. Nevertheless, this book really gets to grip with its characters and presents them in the most engaging fashion.
It was reading widely about Charles 'Origin' Darwin that lead, almost inexorably, to an interest in the Lunar group, with Stott's book Darwin's Barnacle sealing the deal, via the chapter on Charles' grandfather Erasmus. Erasmus figures large in Uglow's book too - something of a Titan, both literally and figuratively; a man whose interests (and physical girth) seemed to know no bounds! - and learning more about him is fascinating.
But then there are also the many other 'Lunatics': Boulton, Wedgewood, Watt, Priestley, Edgeworth, Whitehurst, Keir, Day and several others (some very much Lunar Men, others just passing through their orbit, like American polymath Benjamin Franklin, or Joseph Wright the painter, aka Wright of Derby': whilst not strictly a Lunar Man as such, Wright, like Franklin, figures prominently in the book). Some of these names will doubtless be familiar to those with a little general knowledge, Wedgewood for his pottery, Watt for his work with steam engines, Priestley for his politics as much his science, and so on. But the lesser known figures are often equally fascinating, from the fussy-in-love Rousseauian romantic and reactionary Day, to the perhaps a little hapless Withering, who gets into a scientific spat with Erasmus Darwin that reminds me a little of that between Dawkins and Gould in our own times.
One of the many fascinating things about the many subjects covered in this book is how they all mesh together at a particular point in time: coming out of enlightenment thinking, and based (for the most part) far north of London, they represent a growing blurring of old feudal social distinctions and an increased independence (of both mind and pocket), whilst their voracious quest for knowledge connects them to both emerging ideals of political and personal liberty, and the birth of industrialisation and commercialisation, which would simultaneously lift levels of material wealth and increase 'alienation' and the dependence and insecurity of the working population.
Largely pro-liberty, despite the ties of the patronage system many of them cooperated in and profited by, they initially embraced the French revolution, but as enclosures bit deep into the land and Britain reacted against the threat of revolutionary and then Napoleonic Europe, various aspects of the Lunar Men's interests fared unevenly: Wedgewood thrived, advancing industry through increased chemical and practical knowledge, and (like Boulton) bringing higher levels of finish to ever wider markets, whilst Boulton and Watt's steam power quite literally boomed, in every possible respect. And of course Erasmus' interests in evolution would be picked up and developed by Charles, with epoch-shattering revolutionary effect.
But Day's reactionary politics and Priestley's libertarianism (his fate in relation to the riots and 'anti Jacobin' unrest is rather sad) would both succumb to the strange mix of the pragmatic advances of capitalist industrialism (what Day, along with the likes of William Blake - Uglow uses the lunar theme to connect the Lunar Men's reaching 'so eagerly for the moon' with Blake's engraving mocking scientific hubris [the famous 'I want, I want' with a ladder reaching to the moon] - feared as the pollution of our Eden by 'dark satanic mills') with the great reversals to emancipatory progress which had looked imminent (Keir's progressive optimism re the 'diffusion of a general knowledge ... [a] characteristic feature of the present age' contrasting with the anti-intellectualism of Burke, who saw science as 'smeared with blood ... arrogant and uncaring') resulting, at more prosaic levels, in setbacks to British liberal reform.
And all this occurs at a specific moment, at a time when the gentleman amateur was perhaps more common as a leader in science than the professional or academic, and when events in Europe would have immense impact here in the British Isles, both strengthening our own imperial position - although it looked terrible insecure at the time, as America fought for and won its independence, causing the axis of our power base to shift from west (America and the west-indies) to East (India and the East-Indies) - and setting back the course of reforming liberal politics by many decades. All of which developments continue to inform our culture life even now. From our pride in Darwin to our troubled and alienated relationship with Europe.
Many of those in this story were also proto-capitalists, as well as industrialists, making (and sometimes losing) their fortunes speculating with their investments. Erasmus Darwin had to earn his own living, as a doctor, and his desire to publish much of his scientific work anonymously and disguised as poetry, was influenced by a need to secure his reputation and private practice. His involvement as an investor in canal building, whose effect on speeding the pulse of industrialising Britain was akin to the effect the steam engine would shortly redouble, was what ultimately meant that two generations later Charles Darwin could work on evolution as a gentleman of leisure. Fascinating!
Vast in size and coverage (so big - like Erasmus at his dinner table, which had to be modified with a semi-circular cutaway - I couldn't always fit it into my reading rest), this is a very interesting, informative and enjoyable book. Whilst I kind of wish it had been a bit leaner, given how much Uglow covers, it's understandable that it should be a bit of a mammoth.
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