Skip to main content
No. 168:
The Lunar Society

Today, we drop in on a remarkable gathering of famous men. 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.

The Lunar Society of Birmingham met monthly in the 1780s. It was called the Lunar Society because it met during the full moon. That way, roads were better lit for members who had to travel at night.

Revolutionaries have always gathered in small groups. The revolutions of the late 18th century were no exception. They 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? Before the French Revolution, intellectuals -- both men and women -- met in salons to talk about scientific and social issues. And, of course, the English Industrial Revolution was centered on those ideas.

Ben Franklin set the pattern. The American Philosophical Society started out as his study group. Of course, Franklin's life was centered both on revolution and on tying scientific knowledge to practical social change.

So the Lunar Society was far from the first of these groups, but it was unique for its startling membership. It numbered only about a dozen people, but oh, what a dozen they were.

The heart of the Society was Matthew Boulton -- the industrialist who built Watt's engines. Look at some of the other members: Erasmus Darwin -- famous physician and writer and Charles Darwin's grandfather. Joseph Priestly -- the rebellious cleric and scientist, famous for isolating oxygen. Josiah Wedgwood: he was known for his fine tableware, but he was also dedicated to the improvement of everyday life. He made enormous contributions to the production of common tableware. By the way, Wedgwood was Charles Darwin's other grandfather.

The list goes on: the astronomer William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus. He was a also a famous organist. John Smeaton, designer of the Eddystone lighthouse and the most advanced engine designer before Watt.

Can you imagine being in a room with this group -- with these makers of the Industrial Revolution -- with these people genuinely asking how to improve their world? The 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 in 1785 capitalism was revolution. When these late-18th-century intellectuals and industrialists consciously joined forces, it was because they wanted 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 work.

(Theme music)

Bronowski, J., The Ascent of Man. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973, Chapter 8, The Drive for Power.

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 episode had been greatly revised as Episode 1726.