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. Read the rest of this entry »