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An illuminating crossroad of time and mind

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, Jenny Uglow, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 596 pp., $30

October 27, 2002|Richard Hamblyn | Richard Hamblyn is the author of "The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies," which won the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in science and technology, and is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of 18th century science writing.

"The book of Nature is open to all men," wrote the 18th century British geologist John Whitehurst, "and perhaps in no part of the world more so than in Derbyshire." This striking claim, a coalition between the global democracy of knowledge -- "Nature is open to all" -- and a profound sense of local attachment and pride, expresses one of the more likable features of the age of the Enlightenment; it gives a good indication, too, of the spirit in which Jenny Uglow's latest book has been written.

As a celebration of a local milieu as well as a world culture that emerged both within it and around it, "The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World" is a compelling exploration of the Enlightenment, an age of ambition and change -- and of crowds. Dozens of individuals roam the pages of this teeming campus of a book, and we watch as they meet, talk, ally themselves, argue, collaborate, drift apart, grow old and die, and at times it is as if we meet them too, as if Uglow takes us gently by the arm and walks us through the streets of Birmingham and Derby to introduce us to her cast of characters and to let us in on their conversations as they scheme and laugh and talk their way through the world that they helped to shape.

As all this suggests, "The Lunar Men" is a work of history that foregrounds personality, friendship and alliance to build a wider picture of the period. In this case, the method is well suited to the material, for the Lunar Society of Birmingham, to which the title of the book alludes, was nothing if not a creative collision of temperaments and personalities. A group of like-minded British friends who began to meet once a month during the 1760s, the Lunar Society gathered on the Monday nearest the full moon so that its members might have some light by which to make their way home along the unlit roads of pre-industrial England.

The group was amorphous, depending for its shape upon whoever was around on the day, but at one time or another most of the greatest figures of 18th century industry and science were involved in the club: Erasmus Darwin, the poet and inventor (and grandfather of Charles), to whom Uglow refers as "the grit in the oyster" in an excellent invocation of his catalyzing presence; Josiah Wedgewood, pioneering potter and industrialist extraordinaire; John Whitehurst, the geologist and clockmaker, whose words were quoted at the beginning of this review; Joseph Priestley, radical preacher and one of the earlier discoverers of oxygen; and Matthew Boulton and James Watt, the celebrated makers of engines and fortunes. Benjamin Franklin, too, kept up a correspondence with many of the regular members, and he may well have attended a Lunar meeting or two during the long years he spent in Britain as agent and ambassador.

As Uglow emphasizes throughout the book, these were extraordinary people who lived in extraordinary times, and it is evident from their letters to one another that they were aware of it too. "It may be my fate to be a kind of comet, or flaming meteor in science," wrote Joseph Priestley in 1775, and some of the most revealing sections of "The Lunar Men" deal with the issues of self-image and self-promotion that began to emerge from the intensely entrepreneurial cultures of Europe and North America.

Many of Uglow's Lunatics were publicists through and through, which is one of the reasons they remain so accessible in the archives today. Take James Watt, for example, the Scottish-born industrialist and manufacturer, whose greatest success lay in convincing the world that he had invented the steam engine. Anyone who has stubbed their toe on Watt's larger-than-life marble statue that sprawls across the vestibule of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh (it's far too big to be taken into the building) will have encountered something of the solid ambition of the man. Watt's genius lay in recognizing the possibilities of a century-old technology and then in turning himself and his friends into its chief beneficiaries. He was, in some respects, the Bill Gates of the steam engine: not its inventor, but its leading patron and promoter.

But then this is how industry has always worked, and Uglow is at her best, both as a historian and a biographer, in tracing the complex networks of ideas and alliances that conspired to put inventions and, more specifically, patents, into one pair of hands and not another. Friendship and rivalry stalk these pages like the figures of virtues from a tapestry, while questions of priority -- who was the first to discover or invent, whose name will go on to be remembered or forgotten? -- fueled the anxieties over money and reputation that smoldered away in the backgrounds of these lives. "These men should not die," as Erasmus Darwin once said about his friends, and his words are aptly quoted by Uglow, an author who does so much, and so well, to breathe new life into her subjects.

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