wedgwood: going lunar

Josiah Wedgwood and his cohorts. The most brilliant group in England and likely the most eccentric. Many have passed into the forgotten mists of history, but some of them changed the world…

…These scientific interests found their formal expression in the Lunar Society, the famous Birmingham society which met every month on the Monday nearest the time of the full moon to enable its more distant visitors- like Wedgwood from Etruria, or Darwin from Lichfield- to travel home in greater safety by its light. Held in turn to the homes of the leading spirits, it attracted scientific celebrities from the whole of Europe to air their views and answer their critics. Here, if anywhere, was the heart of this group of men, for many of Wedgwood’s friends were members.

—Portrait of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) c.1770
Joseph Wright of Derby ARA (1734-1797)
“This picture was one of two autograph versions painted by Wright, and belonged to Darwin’s brother, William. It has descended in that branch of the Darwin family until recently.”—Read More:

They all felt their debt to each other and they hated to miss a meeting. Even Darwin, a natural despot in personal relations, had a healthy respect for their abilities and once wrote to Boulton in 1778, “I am sorry the infernal Divinities, who visit mankind with diseases, and are therefore at perpetual war with Doctors, should have prevented my seeing all you great Men at Soho to-day-Lord! what inventions, what wit, what rhetoric, metaphysical, mechanical and pyrotecnical, will be on the wing, bandy’d like a shuttlecock from one to another of your troop of philosophers! while poor I, I by myself I, imprizon’d in a post chaise, am joggled, and jostled, and bump’d, and bruised along the King’s high road, to make war upon a pox or a fever! — Erasmus Darwin
Letter to Matthew Boulton, 5 April 1778. Quoted in Desmond King-Hele (ed.), The Letters of Erasmus Darwin (1981), 84.

—In the late eighteenth century, the meetings of a few fertile minds changed an age.
The original Lunarmen gathered together for lively dinner conversations, the journey back from their Birmingham meeting place lit by the full moon. They were led by the larger-than-life physician Erasmus Darwin, a man of extraordinary intellectual insight with his own pioneering ideas on evolution. Others included the flamboyant entrepreneur Matthew Boulton, the brilliantly perceptive engineer James Watt whose inventions harnessed the power of steam, the radical polymath Joseph Priestley who, among his wide-ranging achievements discovered oxygen, and the innovative potter and social reformer Josiah Wedgwood. Their debates brought together philosophy, arts, science and commerce, and as well as debating and discovering, the ‘Lunarticks’ also built canals and factories, managed world-class businesses — and changed the face of Birmingham.
Jenny Uglow is author of The Lunar Men: the friends who made the future, published by Faber & Faber in 2002, a widely acclaimed book about the lives of these remarkable men.–Read More:

Their individual achievements however, were as dissimilar as their temperaments. All were talented, but not all were effective. Wordly success came only to those with stamina and endurance: James Watt, Wedgwood, and Boulton achieved their success only by resolute application an unremitting toil. Fully integrated characters, they had a fixed aim in life and they achieved it. They disciplined their personalities. The others in this circle were more indulgent, they allowed their temperaments free rein. Darwin and Priestley, for instance, refused to compromise with their natures for the sake of their careers.

Priestely’s passion for polemics threatened to disrupt his career, and his blind faith in an obsolete theory of combustion jeopardized his discovery of oxygen. Yet he always followed his natural impulse: he suffered rather than cloak his political beliefs and missed the significance of his greatest discovery rather than alter his opinions. Darwin, too, lived his life on his own terms: he stammered out his views whatever the company and indulged his “love of Venus” despite his medical profession. The genius of Darwin and Priestley was such that their reputations have survived their obsessions, unlike those of the less gifted members of this group.

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