A lucid portrait of like-minded if very different Brits who worked, schemed, and conversed the Industrial Revolution into motion.
Josiah Wedgwood, Samuel Galton, Erasmus Darwin, James Watt: all familiar names, figuring in every college survey of the history of technology and the intellectual history of England. London-based editor Uglow (Hogarth: A Life and a World, 1997), who, one suspects, prefers the 17th century to her own time, blows the dust off their bones to present them as eccentric, preternaturally intelligent men who, far from laboring alone on their steam engines and mechanical looms, met regularly with fellow Midlands inventors and “toy-makers”—a toy then being the term for “the wealth of small metal goods for which Birmingham was already famous”—in lively discussions that centered on how to improve the human condition and make a fortune in the bargain. (Uglow quotes the local saying, current until the 1970s, “Any fool can make money in Birmingham.”) Infused with the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment, in part because several of its fellows had studied in Glasgow and Edinburgh, the “Lunar Society of Birmingham” evolved from a circle of inventors devoted to sharing the results of experiments and, in Darwin’s words, to getting in “a little philosophical laughing” to an influential if largely informal academy. Among its accomplishments were the vetting of Darwin’s first scientific paper, on electricity, and pushing the development of the elaborate canal system that even today joins some of the major rivers of the Midlands, to say nothing of making a slew of inventions that changed the world—and all with the aim of perfecting it. Uglow observes, sadly, that while this “constellation of extraordinary individuals” was short-lived, its collaborative and sometimes nearly instantaneous efforts were unmatched until the present, with the arrival of the Internet. Though rather less sparkling than Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club (2001), with which it shares many sympathies (and a publisher), Uglow’s study ably captures the brilliance of that constellation in moments sublime and ordinary.
A very welcome, highly readable contribution to intellectual history.