Today, let's drop in on a remarkable gathering. 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.
It was called The Lunar
Society of Birmingham, and it was active for
at least sixteen years, beginning in 1775. It got
its name from the practice of meeting each month on
the Monday nearest to the full moon. That way,
roads were better lit for members who had to travel
Revolutionaries have always gathered in small
groups, and this was a revolutionary group. The
revolutions of the late eighteenth century 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?
Ben Franklin had helped to set the pattern very
early in the game. His life was centered both on
revolution and on tying scientific knowledge to
practical social change. And The American
Philosophical Society started out as his study
Before the French Revolution, intellectuals (both
men and women) gathered in salons to talk about
scientific and social issues. Now the English
Industrial Revolution was about to become the
ultimate fusion of science, social change, and
revolution. And the Lunar Society formed a primary
focus for such change.
But, if the Lunar Society was not unique for its
aims, it was certainly unique for its membership.
It numbered only a dozen or so people, but what a
dozen they were! The heart of the Society was
Matthew Boulton, the
industrialist who built Watt's engines.
Other members included James Watt, Erasmus Darwin (famous physician
and writer and Charles Darwin's grandfather), and
Priestley was the rebellious cleric and scientist,
famous for isolating oxygen. Josiah Wedgwood was
known for fine tableware, but he was also dedicated
to improving everyday life. He made huge
contributions to the production of cheap tableware.
(And Wedgwood was Charles Darwin's other
The roster goes on: the astronomer William Herschel, who discovered
the planet Uranus was also a famous organist in his
day. John Smeaton, designer of the Eddystone
lighthouse, knew more about steam-engine design
than anyone before Watt.
Can you imagine being in a room with these makers
of the Industrial Revolution who were genuinely
asking how to improve their world? 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
capitalism was revolution in the late
eighteenth century. When this group of writers,
intellectuals, scientists, and industrialists
consciously joined forces, it was precisely because
they meant 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 is a greatly revised version of Episode 168.
The Boulton-Watt Works in Birmingham, England
19th-Century Engraving, Source
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.