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In the late 1700s, five gifted inventors and amateur scholars in Birmingham, England, came together for what one of them, Erasmus Darwin, called "a little philosophical laughing." They also helped kick-start the industrial revolution, as Jenny Uglow relates in the lively The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. Their "Lunar Society" included Joseph Pr In the late 1700s, five gifted inventors and amateur scholars in Birmingham, England, came together for what one of them, Erasmus Darwin, called "a little philosophical laughing." They also helped kick-start the industrial revolution, as Jenny Uglow relates in the lively The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. Their "Lunar Society" included Joseph Priestley, the chemist who isolated oxygen; James Watt, the Scottish inventor of the steam engine; and Josiah Wedgwood, whose manufacture of pottery created the industrial model for the next century. Joined by other "toymakers" and scholarly tinkerers, they concocted schemes for building great canals and harnessing the power of electricity, coined words such as "hydrogen" and "iridescent," shared theories and bank accounts, fended off embezzlers and industrial spies, and forged a fine "democracy of knowledge." And they had a fine time doing so, proving that scholars need not be dullards or eccentrics asocial. Uglow's spirited look at this group of remarkable "lunaticks" captures a critical, short-lived moment of early modern history. Readers who share their conviction that knowledge brings power will find this book a rewarding adventure. --Gregory McNamee


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In the late 1700s, five gifted inventors and amateur scholars in Birmingham, England, came together for what one of them, Erasmus Darwin, called "a little philosophical laughing." They also helped kick-start the industrial revolution, as Jenny Uglow relates in the lively The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. Their "Lunar Society" included Joseph Pr In the late 1700s, five gifted inventors and amateur scholars in Birmingham, England, came together for what one of them, Erasmus Darwin, called "a little philosophical laughing." They also helped kick-start the industrial revolution, as Jenny Uglow relates in the lively The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. Their "Lunar Society" included Joseph Priestley, the chemist who isolated oxygen; James Watt, the Scottish inventor of the steam engine; and Josiah Wedgwood, whose manufacture of pottery created the industrial model for the next century. Joined by other "toymakers" and scholarly tinkerers, they concocted schemes for building great canals and harnessing the power of electricity, coined words such as "hydrogen" and "iridescent," shared theories and bank accounts, fended off embezzlers and industrial spies, and forged a fine "democracy of knowledge." And they had a fine time doing so, proving that scholars need not be dullards or eccentrics asocial. Uglow's spirited look at this group of remarkable "lunaticks" captures a critical, short-lived moment of early modern history. Readers who share their conviction that knowledge brings power will find this book a rewarding adventure. --Gregory McNamee

30 review for The Lunar Men

  1. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

    Way too much information for me. Think of a fruit cake, and then pack it even more with fruit and nuts, then do the same thing again, and again....now try and eat it! For me it was just too crammed and stodgy. The 18th century was undoubtedly a wonderfully exciting era for science, technology and industry, and although this was conveyed in the writing and illustrations in this book, there was just too much STUFF. I wish the author had trodden more lightly - perhaps written a selection of biograph Way too much information for me. Think of a fruit cake, and then pack it even more with fruit and nuts, then do the same thing again, and again....now try and eat it! For me it was just too crammed and stodgy. The 18th century was undoubtedly a wonderfully exciting era for science, technology and industry, and although this was conveyed in the writing and illustrations in this book, there was just too much STUFF. I wish the author had trodden more lightly - perhaps written a selection of biographies, rather than bringing the stories and achievements of all the Lunar Men together in one book. I have indigestion and a headache.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Fish

    The trouble with reviewing books on history is that sometimes it's difficult to separate your interest in the subject from your interest in the book. I came to The Lunar Men because of an interest in Erasmus Darwin - inventor, philosopher, poet, grandfather of Charles Darwin and the man from whom the hero of my own Erasmus Hobart and the Golden Arrow draws his name. He and his fellow luminaries formed an intellectual crucible in a time of intense scientific and political ferment. What I wanted to The trouble with reviewing books on history is that sometimes it's difficult to separate your interest in the subject from your interest in the book. I came to The Lunar Men because of an interest in Erasmus Darwin - inventor, philosopher, poet, grandfather of Charles Darwin and the man from whom the hero of my own Erasmus Hobart and the Golden Arrow draws his name. He and his fellow luminaries formed an intellectual crucible in a time of intense scientific and political ferment. What I wanted to do was follow the lives of these fascinating figures and see them in their context. In short, I wanted the book to do for the Lunar Society what The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science had done for the Enlightenment. In this, I was sadly disappointed. Presumably in an attempt to show just how dynamic the times were, Uglow has written the book as a series of loosely themed chapters each covering aspects of the times her subjects inhabit, from the canal-building boom to the romantic society. This isn't the problem: the problem is that within some of those chapters she has cast her net far too wide, with the net result that the Lunar Society members are reduced almost to cameos. It's like telling the story of Monty Python's Meaning of Life whilst attempting to follow the life stories of everyone involved. If you did that, then sure you'd hear a few interesting points about how Jane Leeves went from a song and dance routine for Every Sperm is Sacred to a career-defining role in Frasier, but you could be forgiven for forgetting that Graham Chapman was in the film at all. In other chapters the narrative is more tightly focused, but this seems largely to be in subjects concerning some of the society members' business interests, primarily Wedgewood's pottery and Watt's patent disputes. Whilst these are undoubtedly a key part of the lives of those people, they seem less relevant to the Lunar Society and not - for my part - what I hoped the book would be about. By contrast, the inventions of Erasmus Darwin are mentioned almost in passing, and whilst the book refers to the regular meetings of the society at no point do we get a feeling for what went on in them or what came out of them. In the end the book is something of missed opportunity, because what little there is about the scientific work of Darwin and his fellows serves only to whet the appetite. The literary style is also pleasant and engaging - at least once Uglow has got past her attempts to be poetic in the early chapters. Perhaps it's in keeping with the nature of Erasmus Darwin himself that the book lacks focus, but you come away feeling much the same as Ludovico il Moro, patron of Leonardo Da Vinci - impressed by the wide range of output, but still feeling it would have been better if he'd finished carving that bloody horse.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Judith Johnson

    Fantastic non-fiction book - I learnt so much about a part of history that was so deeply influential in the making of the Industrial Revolution. But no dull history text-book is this - it was fun getting to know the Lunar Men. Really want to do a road-trip now to see all the places in the Midlands mentioned!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Michael T. Bee

    Couldn't put it down. Sparked a general interest in science reading which only grows. Couldn't put it down. Sparked a general interest in science reading which only grows.

  5. 4 out of 5

    A Curious Mind

    What was happening in England, during the Georgian period, was dramatic. In two generations, roughly from 1730 to 1800, the country changed from a mainly agricultural nation into an emerging industrial force. The same time, new political ideas and revolutions, transformed the social and political status quo and forged the British Empire, affecting the lives of millions and opening the way to the industrialised age. Within this political and social unrest, a diverse group of men, in Birmingham, ar What was happening in England, during the Georgian period, was dramatic. In two generations, roughly from 1730 to 1800, the country changed from a mainly agricultural nation into an emerging industrial force. The same time, new political ideas and revolutions, transformed the social and political status quo and forged the British Empire, affecting the lives of millions and opening the way to the industrialised age. Within this political and social unrest, a diverse group of men, in Birmingham, are pursuing, as a hobby, scientific knowledge. Each of them has its own strong character and temperament. All are passionate, venturous, and progressive. They found a society, the Lunar Society of Birmingham. Their meetings are held every month, on a date near the full moon, starting with dinner at two and following with discussions and experiments until late evening. The discussed topics are many and diverse, from literature and philosophy to chemistry and engineering. These are the Lunar men, the men that by using science and technology, transform the way of doing things and lead the way towards the industrial revolution. It’s Matthew Boulton, the “toymaker” who established the Soho manufactory north of Birmingham. The inventor and engineer James Watt, probably the first that tried and succeeded to save energy by improving the primitive steam engines. The potter Josiah Wedgwood, the fist to industrialise pottery manufacturing; he experimented with a wide variety of pottery techniques and used artists to garnish his vases. His interests were many and diverse, and it was in his house, the Etruria Hall, where photography was first invented. Joseph Priestley, a theologian and natural philosopher, a teacher and political theorist. His work is vast, it is expanded to scientific inventions, most considerable his invention of soda water. He wrote about electricity and photosynthesis but become famous with the discovery of oxygen – the “dephlogisticated air” as he dubbed it. He was a minister within the Unitarian church and his theses about political and civil liberties caused strong opposition. His house and books were burnt by the mobs during the riots against intellectualism; his exile to America was the start of the end for the Lunar Society. Perhaps the most interesting figure in the book is Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, the founder of the theory of Evolution. He was a doctor by profession, but his interests were many and diverse. Gardening, agriculture, chemistry and engineering, poetry and philosophy, even cosmology, were some of his intellectual passions and pursuits. He also had a vague idea about evolution; he increasingly felt that every living organism had descended from one common microscopic organism, a single filament. Darwin would construct the first coherent theory of evolution, of competition and survival. He added to his family crest the motto E conchis omnia “everything from shells”, an action that outraged his clerical friends. Canon Seward sputtered that Darwin was a follower of Epicurus, who claimed that the world was created by accident and not God. Fearing for his practice, Darwin caved in and painted out his blasphemous Latin. (pages 152-153) After her excellent biography of Hogarth, Jenny Uglow gives us a nice and detailed history of the Lunar men. Their personal adventures and family stories and tragedies are intertwined beautifully with their intellectual passions and scientific pursuits. She describes sufficiently the revolutions of this period that changed the political and social systems, such as the French and the American Revolutions as well as, the revolutionary advances in science, such as these of Linnaeus and Lavoisier. She has researched her subject widely and indeed, the reference list is detailed and extensive. It is a useful tool for anyone who wants to examine and study more extensively the period and the lives of these extraordinary men. The book is supported by beautiful illustrations and portraits of these passionate men and their inventions. It is a very well written book that demonstrates that even in difficult periods there are determined and passionate people that can lead the way and really change the world.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Peter Ellwood

    Marvellous book. My goodness me, the outburst of creative genius that defined Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century and on into the nineteenth: is really well served, what with Richard Holmes’ Age of Wonder, and this magnificent piece of work. It offers a biography of the men who formed the Lunar Society, tracing their blossoming, in Birmingham, in the 1750s, to the quiet fading in the 1810s/20s. For my part I was largely ignorant of the second half of the eighteenth century. I ten Marvellous book. My goodness me, the outburst of creative genius that defined Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century and on into the nineteenth: is really well served, what with Richard Holmes’ Age of Wonder, and this magnificent piece of work. It offers a biography of the men who formed the Lunar Society, tracing their blossoming, in Birmingham, in the 1750s, to the quiet fading in the 1810s/20s. For my part I was largely ignorant of the second half of the eighteenth century. I tended to view it, relatively speaking, as little more than the prelude to the mighty age of Victorianism. It came as a shock therefore to learn of the energy; the enterprise; the creative marvel of this group of people, who befriended each other; fed off each other’s ideas in a staggering variety of disciplines; encouraged each other; occasionally argued bitterly; worked in partnership too – and changed the face of Britain in the process. Jenny Uglow is scrupulous in pointing out that if they hadn’t invented this or that, then someone else probably would have done – such was the creative ferment of the age. But they fact remains that in many spheres, they were the ones who got there first. Watt and his steam engines, Boulton and his extraordinary range of industrial processes, from making buttons to minting coins, Priestley and the discovery of oxygen, and so on. Some of these advances looked impossible. How do you produce, say, pottery in sufficient volume when you cannot transport them safely or cheaply enough? Answer: invent the canal system. How cool is that? My favourite of the group was Erasmus Darwin: cheery, avuncular, brilliantly enquiring, and a really awful poet. But he never gave up (and incidentally took thinking on evolution a very long way down the road his grandson Charles would eventually make his own). An amazing group of people, whose central belief seemed to be that anything, miracles included, was possible. Jenny Uglow conveys brilliantly the exhilaration that they brought to the period, and that the period brought to them. I have seen one or two Goodreads reviews which criticise her writing – but I would have no hesitation is saying it was both flowing and entirely appropriate for the subject matter. Bad writing doesn’t normally win major writing awards!

  7. 4 out of 5

    John Read

    History is the 'new black.' History programmes are all over TV these days and very popular too. About time. History books too, seem to fly off the shelves. This one is a corker. The Lunar Society was a group of eighteenth century amateur experimenters and inventors. That's putting it kindly. Heath Robinson comes to mind for some of them. They would meet, in Birmingham, every Monday night nearest to the full moon. But out of this group came some of the greatest inventions that changed the world. History is the 'new black.' History programmes are all over TV these days and very popular too. About time. History books too, seem to fly off the shelves. This one is a corker. The Lunar Society was a group of eighteenth century amateur experimenters and inventors. That's putting it kindly. Heath Robinson comes to mind for some of them. They would meet, in Birmingham, every Monday night nearest to the full moon. But out of this group came some of the greatest inventions that changed the world. If you have any interest at all in the history of the Industrial Revolution and how our dark, horse drawn world turned into the workhouse of the world, this book will enthrall you. Some of the principal members of The Lunar Society were: Matthew Boulton; Josiah Wedgewood; Erasmus Darwin; Joseph Priestly; James Watt; "Some biographies are dry as dust, but this is packed with bizarre, entertaining, and downright hilarious anecdotes. The story is filled with the sparks of electricity, hammering of pistons, and hissing of steam engines." Focus. "What Jenny Uglow did for eighteenth century London with her biography of Hogarth, she has now done for Birmingham. This is an exhilerating book filled with wonders." The Times "Every page is packed with riveting information about this group of titans who precipitated eighteenth century Britain into the modern world." Daily Telegraph. "An absolute wonder of a book." Economist "Delightful, vivid and compelling. Evening Standard. "A beautifully written, captivating narrative that offers a rare account of an amazing collection of visionaries." Birmingham Post "This plump book is like a treasure galleon stuffed with riches and marvels." The Oldie. "The best single explanation of the genesis of the industrial revolution." Sunday Herald, books of the year. "The best book I've read this year. Full of unexpected information, amazing characters, and the real sense that scientific curiosity is as exciting as any 'artistic pursuit.'" Guardian, Books of the year. "A revelation from start to finish." The Scotsman, Books of the year. "Beautifully illustrated with many plates and diagrams. Sunday Times.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Simon

    So it took me a month and a half to get through this book, so what? Non-fiction books always take a bit longer to get through, I think because there's so much more content to understand and absorb. Needless to say, I still enjoyed this book and learning about the men of the Lunar Society and the time they lived in. There are so many books and such interest in the 1800s but the 1700s, specifically the late 1700s are just as interesting, if not more interesting, in my opinion. While I enjoyed this So it took me a month and a half to get through this book, so what? Non-fiction books always take a bit longer to get through, I think because there's so much more content to understand and absorb. Needless to say, I still enjoyed this book and learning about the men of the Lunar Society and the time they lived in. There are so many books and such interest in the 1800s but the 1700s, specifically the late 1700s are just as interesting, if not more interesting, in my opinion. While I enjoyed this book, it was a slog to get through at times. But that's probably just because there's so much information to take in. Uglow really doesn't skimp on the details. I'd say anyone who enjoys learning about the 19th century might like this book and obviously anyone who is interested in the 18th century.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Aurélien Thomas

    Way too long and, what a pity one has to overcome the poor, dull and heavy writing style of Jenny Uglow to learn about such men! I would have expected something more exciting and engaging. However, polymaths gifted, passionate, philanthropists and dedicated the Lunar Men were such a remarkable bunch of inventors and intellectuals that, their incredible story deserves to be discovered. So, pick up that book and learn about these geniuses, this small group of friends who changed the world just by Way too long and, what a pity one has to overcome the poor, dull and heavy writing style of Jenny Uglow to learn about such men! I would have expected something more exciting and engaging. However, polymaths gifted, passionate, philanthropists and dedicated the Lunar Men were such a remarkable bunch of inventors and intellectuals that, their incredible story deserves to be discovered. So, pick up that book and learn about these geniuses, this small group of friends who changed the world just by believing in science and all it can unravel for the benefit of mankind -you won't be disappointed! The writing is dull but, the topic is a wonder.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Sara

    I really loved this book, though that may show a burgeoning obsession with the Enlightenment as much as the book itself. The men in the Lunar Society around Birmingham, and the people around them, are fascinating and the author does a really good job of telling the stories of their lives. There kept being sentences that would evoke an entire possible side story for me. The author clearly has an extra soft spot for Erasmus Darwin, and so did I by the end of the book. It is 500 pages, so a bit of I really loved this book, though that may show a burgeoning obsession with the Enlightenment as much as the book itself. The men in the Lunar Society around Birmingham, and the people around them, are fascinating and the author does a really good job of telling the stories of their lives. There kept being sentences that would evoke an entire possible side story for me. The author clearly has an extra soft spot for Erasmus Darwin, and so did I by the end of the book. It is 500 pages, so a bit of a commitment, but worth it, at least to me.

  11. 5 out of 5

    James G.

    Every time I wanted to skim, I couldn't. This long, rich account of how Natural Philosophy became Science in the second half of the 18th c., as told through the remarkably detailed personal account of a circle of extraordinary friends, is as good as any thing I've read on history. As I recently joined the Exploratorium as Director of Development, this book will remain an important touchstone for me of how I can relate to science history and teaching. Every time I wanted to skim, I couldn't. This long, rich account of how Natural Philosophy became Science in the second half of the 18th c., as told through the remarkably detailed personal account of a circle of extraordinary friends, is as good as any thing I've read on history. As I recently joined the Exploratorium as Director of Development, this book will remain an important touchstone for me of how I can relate to science history and teaching.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Dad

    An outstanding portrait of the Enlightenment in 18th Century England. And an exceptional group of people with vivid interests ranging from sciences, like botany, geology, medicine, physics through literature and political life, all set in a world that changed during their lifetimes from agrarian to industrial, in significant part because of their individual and collective efforts. A well-written portrait of a most interesting time and place.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Katharine Trelawney

    I loved this book. It's non fiction "plot is that it is about 8 eighteenth century amateur scientists who used to meet each month on the Monday nearest the full moon. (t's not a werewolf tale, in those days there was no street lighting.) But that doesn't convey the sympathy of approach and fascinating detail of the interconnecting lives of these men who included Josiah Wedgewood, Matthew Boulton and Erasmus Darwin. I loved this book. It's non fiction "plot is that it is about 8 eighteenth century amateur scientists who used to meet each month on the Monday nearest the full moon. (t's not a werewolf tale, in those days there was no street lighting.) But that doesn't convey the sympathy of approach and fascinating detail of the interconnecting lives of these men who included Josiah Wedgewood, Matthew Boulton and Erasmus Darwin.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Maria Longley

    This was my very faithful commuting companion, and part of the reason I took so long to read it. It was amazing to read about just how much these men were involved in and about a time where it was alright to be interested in absolutely everything! It was also interesting to read about the Dissenters and the London-Birmingham dynamic, and about all the inventions from soda water to steam engines... Busy, busy men.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Sharon

    "The Lunar Men" is a meticulous account of several extraordinary doctors, artists, and experimenters whose attempts to understand and control the world around them led to great advancements in science and manufacturing during the 18th century. These included Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, and Matthew Boulton. At monthly meetings of their Lunar Society of Birmingham, they discussed, argued, and cajoled each other about subjects as varied as steam engines, the namin "The Lunar Men" is a meticulous account of several extraordinary doctors, artists, and experimenters whose attempts to understand and control the world around them led to great advancements in science and manufacturing during the 18th century. These included Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, and Matthew Boulton. At monthly meetings of their Lunar Society of Birmingham, they discussed, argued, and cajoled each other about subjects as varied as steam engines, the naming of plants, separating and identifying different gases, canal building, composition of raw materials for pottery, and the best way to educate children. They strove not only to satisfy curiosity, but also to improve the plight of humankind, and of course, to make money. The subject matter of this book is of extreme interest to me, both from the perspective of understanding the Industrial Revolution and concomitant societal changes, as well as wanting to know more about these remarkable men. Overall, I have to say I was disappointed. This book is packed with so much information that it is overwhelming. There are so many different individuals and such a wide range of inventions, experiments, and hobbies that it is impossible to keep track of them all. This is not helped by the book's organization which tends to jump around in time as different men's lives overlap at different periods. While I am usually happy to encounter complexity as a reader, in this book it feels more like chaos. Perhaps simplifying by devoting a section to each individual or breaking the chronology into decades would have helped. In many ways, this book reads like a doctoral dissertation to me. There is a sense that the author is trying to prove how incredibly deep and thorough her research has been by including every last bit of it. This results in prose that frequently feels like a list: "Another aristocratic designer, though from a far more raffish set, was Lady Diana Beauclerk, the eldest daughter of the second Duke of Marlborough. Lady Diana's first marriage to the chronically unfaithful Lord Bolinbroke had exploded in a scandalous divorce in which he sued her lover and the father of her latest child, Samuel Johnson's rakish friend, Topham Beauclerk. Shunned by high society, she then shone as hostess to 'the Club', Johnson and Reynolds, Garrick and Boswell, and to make an income turned to her hobby of painting." That is a great deal of detail about a woman who is mentioned in passing as one of the designers for Wedgwood's pottery. I am left wondering why we needed to know so many details when it might have sufficed to say that Lady Beauclerk, an aristocrat who had been involved in a scandalous liaison, became a designer for Wedgwood to make ends meet. While I am happy to know many details about the primary individuals of the Lunar Society, there are many more like Lady Beauclerk -- incidental men and women whose part could have been included without giving us their entire genealogy, life history, and psychological profile. Including so much extraneous information only serves to obscure the important parts of this story. Too much detail renders the whole meaningless. I want to recommend this book because it centers on such a pivotal time and involves brilliant, flawed, persistent men searching for answers about the world. Unfortunately, I feel many readers may have difficulty getting through this book unless they are interested enough in the subject to wade through the overwhelming amount of information that is presented.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Richard Howard

    "The legacy of the Lunar men is with us still, in the making of the modern world, and in the inspiring confidence with which all these friends, in their different ways, reached so eagerly for the moon." This extensively researched and beautifully written account of the making of the modern world is a masterpiece of historical writing. Its breadth is enormous, its cast many but Jenny Uglow maintains interest and readability throughout. These Lunar men were of a time when it seemed nothing was beyo "The legacy of the Lunar men is with us still, in the making of the modern world, and in the inspiring confidence with which all these friends, in their different ways, reached so eagerly for the moon." This extensively researched and beautifully written account of the making of the modern world is a masterpiece of historical writing. Its breadth is enormous, its cast many but Jenny Uglow maintains interest and readability throughout. These Lunar men were of a time when it seemed nothing was beyond the grasp of a man with wit and industry yet, even as the last of them died, this world was shearing apart into specialisation, romanticism and reaction. Their democratic hopes of liberty and education were co-opted and warped by the familiar enemies of social progress, the establishment, which, though it welcomed their money, always endeavoured to keep them from any political power. One word from the book, a reflection on the Church-and-Crown sponsored riots of the 1790s rings as true today: 'The Birmingham riots were a symbolic moment: the start of that long distrust of the British masses for the intellectual.' (Echoes of the despicable Gove's 'I think the public's had enough of experts!') What astounds is the breadth of these men's achievements and the many areas to which they contributed and, often, pioneered. As I write this I'm only a few miles from Soho House now an island of the past set amidst drab and dreary Birmingham streets. Yet for decades this was where the modern world was made! This is a remarkable book which takes a potentially dull subject but imbued it with wit, life and wonder.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Michael Huang

    An opportunity, seriously lost. The Lunar men, so named because they meet on days of full moon so that they can walk home in the moonlight, are a group of intellectual heavy weights that helped each other and helped move the society forward -- significantly. They included Erasmus Darwin (whose writing foreshadows that of his grandson Charles), James Watt (whose improved engine officially marks the beginning of the industrial revolution), Joseph Priestley (who is sometimes credited with the discov An opportunity, seriously lost. The Lunar men, so named because they meet on days of full moon so that they can walk home in the moonlight, are a group of intellectual heavy weights that helped each other and helped move the society forward -- significantly. They included Erasmus Darwin (whose writing foreshadows that of his grandson Charles), James Watt (whose improved engine officially marks the beginning of the industrial revolution), Joseph Priestley (who is sometimes credited with the discovery of oxygen), and so on. A book about their lives, work, and society backdrop is supposed to be a book of gold. Yet this book is more like gold panning. You might even be forgiven to think some chapters are just a collection of notes produced in the research phase of the book. There is little effort to boil the findings down. Quotation of the original correspondence happens almost every page and are often completely unnecessary (unless you are paid by the pages). Yet, there are gold nuggets. This following quotation, for example from Darwin shows his insight. "Credulity. Life is short, opportunity of knowing rare; our senses are fallacious, our reasoning uncertain; man therefore struggles with perpetual error from cradle to the coffin ...." But this is interspersed in endless description of irrelevant trivia (you will meet every single child of every single member of the group) and distracting narratives (one chapter is titled "... & Sundry Works"). To find the useful, you need to get out your gold pan.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Summer Meyers

    I did it! I finished it! I think it took me an entire year, but I did it! And I feel like I have conquered the moon! Ah-ha! This is an extremely in depth look at science in 1700 England focusing primarily on a group of men who formed a society known as the Lunar men. I have no excuse, except to say that Patti Maxwell made me do it. It was fascinating in a lot of ways because it was a time when medicine, botany, geology, engineering etc. were all under this umbrella of "science" giving these men the I did it! I finished it! I think it took me an entire year, but I did it! And I feel like I have conquered the moon! Ah-ha! This is an extremely in depth look at science in 1700 England focusing primarily on a group of men who formed a society known as the Lunar men. I have no excuse, except to say that Patti Maxwell made me do it. It was fascinating in a lot of ways because it was a time when medicine, botany, geology, engineering etc. were all under this umbrella of "science" giving these men the freedom to explore anything and everything that took their fancy. It was all related and led them all into different paths of exploration. Not only that, it would be connected to poetry and art, something you wouldn't necessarily consider as linked to science. But then again there were no rules because they were making them up as they were going along. So yeah, go ahead and write those poems about flowers, Dr Darwin. Those are completely relevant. This is extremely dense and there are multiple players (not to mention wives and children) that you need to keep track of. Some of it was very dry and was a beast to get through. I found it completely worth my time however, so if you have any interest in historical science (or humanity in general), I would recommend it.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Adrian

    A biography of the estimable group of English scientists (Day, Watt, Wedgewood, Edgeworth, Boulton, Darwin and Priestly among others) who met regularly from the 1750s to 1790s literally by the light of the moon. They were interested in everything- plants, geology, canal building, mineralogy, effect of different gases, steampower- you name it anything of a scientific nature was within their scope. Uglow brings in the politics of the time including the French Revolution which really ended the Luna A biography of the estimable group of English scientists (Day, Watt, Wedgewood, Edgeworth, Boulton, Darwin and Priestly among others) who met regularly from the 1750s to 1790s literally by the light of the moon. They were interested in everything- plants, geology, canal building, mineralogy, effect of different gases, steampower- you name it anything of a scientific nature was within their scope. Uglow brings in the politics of the time including the French Revolution which really ended the Lunar Men when radicals and intellectuals were attacked (Priestly has his house burned down and was forced to move to the US). If I have one complaint with this excellent book it's that Watt's steam engine isn't dilineated the way it might have been. There is no 'the steam engine has been invented' moment.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Marguerite Kaye

    I was really enjoying this book both times I attempted to read it but I've had to call it quits a 100 pages in. Not because of the content, but because of the format. I have the paperback version and the text is TINY!!!! I have always had perfect vision, but sadly age and work are taking its toll. So I knew the text would be a problem when I bought it, but I bought it anyway because I really wanted to read it. But then I stopped. And then I finally caved, got my eyes tested, and got glasses. And I was really enjoying this book both times I attempted to read it but I've had to call it quits a 100 pages in. Not because of the content, but because of the format. I have the paperback version and the text is TINY!!!! I have always had perfect vision, but sadly age and work are taking its toll. So I knew the text would be a problem when I bought it, but I bought it anyway because I really wanted to read it. But then I stopped. And then I finally caved, got my eyes tested, and got glasses. And started again. But you know what, even with my glasses, I have to peer at this book with eyes narrowed, and the quote text is so small I still can't read it. So with a huge stack of other books on my TBR pile, I have sadly had to call it a day on this one. Really hate that.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    This is an intensely researched look at the lives of five fascinating "amateur inventors" in England during the dawn of the industrial revolution, who formed a society to promote their mutual learning. The group befriended fellow amateur scientist Benjamin Franklin of America, and included James Watt of the steam engine, potter Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen, and physician and evolutionary theorist Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's grandfather. There were some brilliant This is an intensely researched look at the lives of five fascinating "amateur inventors" in England during the dawn of the industrial revolution, who formed a society to promote their mutual learning. The group befriended fellow amateur scientist Benjamin Franklin of America, and included James Watt of the steam engine, potter Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen, and physician and evolutionary theorist Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's grandfather. There were some brilliant moments in the book and the men and their prodigious intellectual achievements are admirable, but this was just way, way, way too long. It was only perversity that kept me going until the end.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Marilyn

    Incredibly detailed wide ranging research that weaves effortless together to recreate an exhilarating period in western history. A surge of scientific discovery and practical application that was to lift mankind put of the morass, but which inspired too the anti-intellectual reaction that we are experiencing anew today.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Neale

    One of the very best 'portmanteau' historical biographies: not just a lovely story of a fascinating group of scholars and scientists, and their historical and intellectual milieu, but a biography of the very idea of friendship... One of the very best 'portmanteau' historical biographies: not just a lovely story of a fascinating group of scholars and scientists, and their historical and intellectual milieu, but a biography of the very idea of friendship...

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kit Kincade

    An amazing and dizzying rendering of information. Though billed as "biography" it is so much more than that-it is the history of a place, or science, and the interconnectedness of great thinkers. Hard to take it all in! An amazing and dizzying rendering of information. Though billed as "biography" it is so much more than that-it is the history of a place, or science, and the interconnectedness of great thinkers. Hard to take it all in!

  25. 5 out of 5

    David

    I am fascinated by the history of science and technology, and I found this long and very thoroughly researched book to be a real treat. I hadn’t realised until reading it how closely the leading lights of British science and industry were connected to each other in the late 1700s. But close they were, and often met monthly in an informal association called the Lunar Society (because they met on nights with a full moon). Just a list of those who came to those meetings is almost sufficient to show w I am fascinated by the history of science and technology, and I found this long and very thoroughly researched book to be a real treat. I hadn’t realised until reading it how closely the leading lights of British science and industry were connected to each other in the late 1700s. But close they were, and often met monthly in an informal association called the Lunar Society (because they met on nights with a full moon). Just a list of those who came to those meetings is almost sufficient to show what an immensely talented group they were, and how much they influenced the development of technology and knowledge in that period: ERASMUS DARWIN, grandfather of Charles Darwin, but also a hugely important figure in the intellectual world of the time. A practising medical doctor, who also made many inventions and wrote several long descriptions of the natural world in the form of poetry. His views on evolution weren’t as well grounded as those of his more famous grandson, but were nevertheless very advanced for his time. JOSIAH WEDGEWOOD, famous for his creation of beautiful English ceramics, but also as I found out from this book, a major force in the establishment of Britain’s network of navigiable canals. His interest in developing canals came from the fact that he was sick of his beautiful pottery being broken when being transported over the terrible unmade roads of the time. On the smooth waters of a canal, his precious cargos would be far more likely to survive the journey. JAMES WATT of steam engine fame. Watt didn’t by any means invent the first steam engine, but he developed many significant improvements which greatly increased their efficiency and power, as well as making smaller engines possible. Initially only used in mining, Watt’s more efficient engines eventually saw use in the early textile industry in Britain, which made use of his engines to drive the powered looms in factories. MATTHEW BOULTON, prominent in manufacturing, and for a long time Watt’s business partner. I get the impression that Boulton was the optimistic, outgoing character in the partnership compared with Watt. Without Boulton, Watt may never have achieved any success. JOSEPH PRIESTLY the chemist, the first person to isolate the gas oxygen (though he clung to the old ‘phlogiston’ theory and so called it ‘de-phlogisticated air’). I also discovered from this book that he was a prominent preacher with radical views. So radical that eventually his house and laboratory were destroyed by a mob and he eventually left England for the Americas. As well as these five, there were at least seven other men prominent in the Lunar Society over the years. Alas, they were all men, but their wives, sisters and daughters also played their part in the intellectual ferment of the time, and it is interesting that most of these men seemed very willing, even eager, to have their daughters as well as their sons educated. The closeness of the relationships between these people may be indicated by the fact that Erasmus Darwin’s son married a Wedgwood daughter, and one of their sons was the more familiar Charles Darwin of evolutionary reknown. A very interesting book, but I do need to say that I found it a difficult read as an ebook, mainly because there are so many characters and so many of their friends, acquaintances and relations mentioned that I did often find it difficult to remember who everyone was. I almost needed a ‘cheat-sheet’ or a ‘dramatis personae’ by my side. It would have been easier to cope with a paper book, I think, in that it’s very easy with a physical book to flip back and forth to scan for forgotten names and passages. So much so that, even though I now own the ebook, I think I’ll go looking for a paper copy to put on my shelf. Highly recommended if you are at all interested in the history of technology.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Tim Chamberlain

    As someone in Britain who went to school in the era of Margaret Thatcher ("milk snatcher") my history education from the ages of 10 to 16 was effectively limited to hard-boiled, concentrated facts and figures relating to the Industrial Revolution, with a sprinkling of WW1 & WW2 jingoism thrown in for good measure. Thankfully (& perhaps astonishingly) this nauseatingly Gradgrind-esque introduction didn't succeed in putting me off history for life, but conversely it perhaps gave me the inkling tha As someone in Britain who went to school in the era of Margaret Thatcher ("milk snatcher") my history education from the ages of 10 to 16 was effectively limited to hard-boiled, concentrated facts and figures relating to the Industrial Revolution, with a sprinkling of WW1 & WW2 jingoism thrown in for good measure. Thankfully (& perhaps astonishingly) this nauseatingly Gradgrind-esque introduction didn't succeed in putting me off history for life, but conversely it perhaps gave me the inkling that there must be so much more to history than simply this - and if any book amply demonstrates that my younger-self's hunch was true, then this is that book! 'The Lunar Men' is a densely written, yet utterly rewarding tome which shows how the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment era ethos of the 18th Century paved the way for the subsequent industrial revolution which transformed British society and ultimately shaped the way we live today. Taking the Lunar Society as her lens through which to do this, Jenny Uglow sets out in formidable detail how the scientific endeavours of these men belied the means by which they each made their livelihoods, how they were each interconnected not simply amongst themselves, but also through correspondence with their counterparts on the Continent and in America, as well as the influences derived from their spouses in these projects, which were often continued by their children, and all of which is dizzingly set in the broader context of the times (both political and social) in which they lived - making this book a truly impressive and enjoyable read. It's not just the distinct characters of the Lunar Men themselves whom Uglow brings to life, but the revolutionary era in which they lived too. As a portrait of such a dynamic epoch it teems and wriggles with detail, furiously busy and energetic apparently as much in the living as in the retelling itself. Jenny Uglow is a companionable guide with a seemingly encyclopaedic interest which ably matches the curiosity of the Lunar Men themselves. Finally, in reading this book, it feels as though all those mind-numbing facts and figures of my distinctly dreary early history lessons have suddenly come to life – living, breathing, thinking, talking individuals linked up with wheezing, thundering, steam-puffing, infernal machines, and the inquisitive exuberance of tightly-crammed jottings in battered notebooks painstakingly turned into learned books and technically brilliant new types of ceramics; swishing butterfly nets, tinkering at an endless range of curiosities with determined seriousness – of oxygen and laughing gas, hot air balloons, thermometers, experimental air-pumps and electrical apparatus, alongside restless angry mobs, philosophers, anti-slavery campaigners, revolutionaries, free-thinkers, pioneering scientists, artists, engineers, and so much more, all happening simultaneously ... It's enthralling stuff, exactly what a history lesson should be!

  27. 5 out of 5

    Frank Stein

    Perhaps no group ever deserved a group biography more than the one that formed the "Lunar Club" in Birmingham, England in the late 18th century. Josiah Wedgwood created modern pottery and home furnishings. Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen (dephilogisted air, as he called it) and much of modern chemistry. Matthew Boulton and James Watt invented marketable steam power and modern industry. Erasmus Darwin articulated the earliest theory of evolution (his grandson Charles would fill it in) and wrote Perhaps no group ever deserved a group biography more than the one that formed the "Lunar Club" in Birmingham, England in the late 18th century. Josiah Wedgwood created modern pottery and home furnishings. Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen (dephilogisted air, as he called it) and much of modern chemistry. Matthew Boulton and James Watt invented marketable steam power and modern industry. Erasmus Darwin articulated the earliest theory of evolution (his grandson Charles would fill it in) and wrote some of the most popular poetry of the age. The fact that all of these people talked to each other is amazing in its own right. But they not only talked; they all contributed to each others' work. Darwin was interested in chemistry while Boulton was interested in pottery while Wedgwood was interested in poetry, and so forth, and all of them made small or large contributions in fields as diverse as geology and meteorology and botany, as well as being involved in liberal politics and theology. Their group contributions to world history are perhaps only rivaled by the philosophers of Athens in its golden age. Everything, from their poetry to their businesses, were infused with the knowledge of the newest science. They both advanced pure science and put that science to work. Thus these small-town "provincials" created the modern world if anyone did. This book, however, can't resist tracing out every possible connection and family relation of the group. The five main subjects of the subtitle become ten main subjects in the list of "principal lunar men" in the preface, becomes dozens of men, women and children in every chapter. It's simply too much to track. Still, the author is able to convey both the excitement of discovery and the personalities of these men: the effervescent and risk-taking Boulton; the hypochondriac Watt; the careful but loving Wedgwood; the strident liberal preacher-cum-scientist Priestly, and the rotund, stuttering, but always amusing Darwin. It helps that these men lived genuinely interesting lives, with several wives, many endeavors, and constant travel. The book made me want to learn more about them, even if it made me want to learn less about everyone else they ever talked to.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Glenn Myers

    This is a joint biography of an informal network of inventors, thinkers, tinkerers, builders and industrialists from the English Midlands in the eighteenth century. It's not that much of a stretch to call their output the 'Midlands Enlightenment.' As Jenny Uglow puts it: 'this small group of friends really was at the leading edge of its time in science, in industry, and in the arts, even in agriculture.' It is fascinating. Here's Erasmus Darwin, the doctor, travelling 10,000 miles a year in a car This is a joint biography of an informal network of inventors, thinkers, tinkerers, builders and industrialists from the English Midlands in the eighteenth century. It's not that much of a stretch to call their output the 'Midlands Enlightenment.' As Jenny Uglow puts it: 'this small group of friends really was at the leading edge of its time in science, in industry, and in the arts, even in agriculture.' It is fascinating. Here's Erasmus Darwin, the doctor, travelling 10,000 miles a year in a carriage, and Joseph Priestly, born near me, gassing mice, and Josiah Wedgewood, who started with £10 and built an empire. (Darwin's son and Wedgewood's daughter produced a certain Charles Darwin and he married another Wedgewood granddaughter, Emma.) Best of all, it drops you into the eighteenth century and teems with its detail, and you can sniff the revolution, the wars with the French, the upheaval, the urbanisation, the clank of James Watt's and Matthew Boulton's steam engines. John Wesley doesn't ride past on a horse, but he could've, and Boswell and Johnson aren't so far away. Meanwhile, everything is being invented. Jenny Uglow's book is a heroic compendium. Just possibly a bit too much eighteenth century in its own length and fascinations. I think I preferred the pace and excitement of Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (which describes an overlapping but later era) and which outdoes this volume in verve, scope and wonder. But that's a high bar. This was a lovely, fascinating, enjoyable read.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Monthly Book Group

    This prize-winning book is a group biography of the 18th century experimenter members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham who met on the Mo(o)nday night nearest to the full moon. This was to facilitate their often lengthy journeys home after society meetings, and well illustrates their energy and enthusiasm. For example, Erasmus Darwin travelled some 10000 miles a year on horseback carrying out his medical duties. The general response to the book was that it was a highly enjoyable, informative and This prize-winning book is a group biography of the 18th century experimenter members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham who met on the Mo(o)nday night nearest to the full moon. This was to facilitate their often lengthy journeys home after society meetings, and well illustrates their energy and enthusiasm. For example, Erasmus Darwin travelled some 10000 miles a year on horseback carrying out his medical duties. The general response to the book was that it was a highly enjoyable, informative and fascinating work. The individual stories of the Lunar men were well told and the positive group dynamics well brought out. There was general agreement also, however, that it was a long and hard read, with a great deal of detail which sometimes resulted in confusion, though the structure and chronology of the book were well done. The difficulties were probably an inevitable consequence of collective biography, particularly when there were so many important Lunar men. Despite this the members were enthusiastic about the book which sparked off a lively wide-ranging discussion. While many of those present were students of the Enlightenment, the focus of the book was on the practical application of Enlightenment ideas in areas such as medicine, geology, physics and chemistry. The Lunar men were highly enthusiastic, energetic and practical. Examples of this were their efforts to influence politicians on Parliamentary Private Bills and the granting of patents. This is an extract from a review at http://monthlybookgroup.wordpress.com/. Our reviews are also to be found at http://monthlybookgroup.blogspot.com/

  30. 4 out of 5

    Ben Ballin

    I am not sure I can sum up this richly-packed book better than the author does herself. The sheer energy of these people's lives, their breadth of curiosity, is extraordinary: they were dissenters and capitalists, rationalists, scientists and poets. The vitality that they brought to Birmingham, the city I live in, and to the wider worlds of science, industry, commerce and the arts is quite mind-blowing. This is part of the author's own conclusion: "The Lunar group were bourgeois capitalists who I am not sure I can sum up this richly-packed book better than the author does herself. The sheer energy of these people's lives, their breadth of curiosity, is extraordinary: they were dissenters and capitalists, rationalists, scientists and poets. The vitality that they brought to Birmingham, the city I live in, and to the wider worlds of science, industry, commerce and the arts is quite mind-blowing. This is part of the author's own conclusion: "The Lunar group were bourgeois capitalists who constantly downplayed the role of labour and overstated the role of leaders, thinkers, inventors; but they were also radicals, educators and firm believers in the democracy of knowledge. Buoyant, sparkling, self-made men, they used the old networks of patronage and class, but they also defied them, shifting the axis of power from metropolis to province, from the money men to industry, from parliament to the people." Of course, they were not wholly self-made - energetic and inquiring although they undoubtedly were - and had complex relationships, for example, with the slave trade (some benefitted directly from it, though all campaigned against it); while the huge cast of wives and daughters in their lives - many clearly as brilliant and capable as the Lunar men - were generally allocated a secondary, supporting role. It's a dense book, and in this Faber paperback edition has rather too small a font, but at the end of 501 pages I had the sense that there are still many stories still to be told about their activities, achievements, and the long shadow of consequences that still unfolds before them.

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