Led by the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, the Lunar Society of Birmingham were a group of eighteenth-century amateur experimenters who met monthly on the Monday night nearest to the full moon. Echoing to the thud of pistons and the wheeze of snorting engines,Jenny Uglow’s vivid and swarming group portrait brings to life the inventors, artisans and tycoons who shaped and fired the modern world.
If ever there was a book to celebrate the exhilaration of investigation, that infectious enthusiasm for knowledge, then this is surely a strong contender. In an age where amateurs could be at the forefront of breakthroughs in the sciences, the Lunar Society were keen to share knowledge which brought on new trains of thought and enquiry, as they dared to dream the fantastical.
These pioneers were to explore many different facets of our world; through botany, geology, physics, medicine, art, literature and so on, as well as profit (for themselves and country), politics, and market forces. The group also felt the full force of the beginnings of the burgeoning, awkward relationship between science and religion.
The scope of the book is impressive, each of these men could have had a book devoted to themselves so combining them into one overlapping narrative is a monumental feat. To keep things fresh, we move between the main players frequently, it helps with both pace and the narrative structure, and allows the huge amount of innovations to be explored in their (more or less) chronological order.
It feels genuinely exciting to follow these lives and the societal changes that stem from their drive. The book doesn’t just focus on the professional but humanises them with plenty of details about their personal lives, which are as eccentric as their work lives. It reveals heart and a resonance that is lacking in some other – drier – books on this era.
There is a great supporting cast as well, including Benjamin Franklin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau amongst others, and these add to the solid core of the Lunar Society, interacting with and helping to inspire new creative directions. What is clear is that the Lunar members played to one another’s strengths and enthusiasms, any arguments helped fuel their creative endeavours, and with the constantly evolving directions of enquiry and members, this makes for a very varied read.
Uglow clearly loves her subject and has created a meticulous and thoroughly entertaining piece of work, with a huge amount of research involved and a huge diversity of interests explored. I happily got lost in the adventures, both physical and intellectual, for hours at a time, what I took from this book was both a better understanding of the times and a good overview on many subjects. More importantly, there is a lot of material that will inspire the inquisitive reader to explore even more topics, which is always a good thing.