Today, we drop in on a remarkable gathering of
famous men. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The Lunar Society of
Birmingham met monthly in the 1780s. It was called
the Lunar Society because it met during the full
moon. That way, roads were better lit for members
who had to travel at night.
Revolutionaries have always gathered in small
groups. The revolutions of the late 18th century
were no exception. They took many forms, but they
were all fomented in study groups. And these groups
invariably got around to a common question: how
could science and technology be made to serve
society? Before the French Revolution,
intellectuals -- both men and women -- met in
salons to talk about scientific and social issues.
And, of course, the English Industrial Revolution
was centered on those ideas.
Ben Franklin set the pattern. The American
Philosophical Society started out as his study
group. Of course, Franklin's life was centered both
on revolution and on tying scientific knowledge to
practical social change.
So the Lunar Society was far from the first of
these groups, but it was unique for its startling
membership. It numbered only about a dozen people,
but oh, what a dozen they were.
The heart of the Society was Matthew Boulton -- the
industrialist who built Watt's engines. Look at
some of the other members: Erasmus Darwin -- famous
physician and writer and Charles Darwin's
grandfather. Joseph Priestly -- the rebellious
cleric and scientist, famous for isolating oxygen.
Josiah Wedgwood: he was known for his fine
tableware, but he was also dedicated to the
improvement of everyday life. He made enormous
contributions to the production of common
tableware. By the way, Wedgwood was Charles
Darwin's other grandfather.
The list goes on: the astronomer William Herschel,
who discovered the planet Uranus. He was a also a
famous organist. John Smeaton, designer of the
Eddystone lighthouse and the most advanced engine
designer before Watt.
Can you imagine being in a room with this group --
with these makers of the Industrial Revolution --
with these people genuinely asking how to improve
their world? The historian Jacob Bronowski looks at
the Lunar Society and says,
What ran through it was a simple faith: the good
life is more than material decency, but the good
life must be based on material decency.
It comes as a jolt to see these dedicated
capitalists as part of a revolutionary cabal. But
in 1785 capitalism was revolution. When these
late-18th-century intellectuals and industrialists
consciously joined forces, it was because they
wanted to shape a decent life -- for everyone.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Bronowski, J., The Ascent of Man. Boston:
Little, Brown and Company, 1973, Chapter 8, The Drive
Schofield, R. E., The Lunar Society at
Birmingham: a social history of provincial science
and industry in eighteenth-century England,
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.
This episode had been greatly revised as Episode 1726.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
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