- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 3, 2002

By Jenny Uglow
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30, 588 pages, illus.

They didn't dance, they didn't sing, and one of their key players didn't even drink. Yet they were prolific producers and crowd pleasers. They prospered enormously from their public performances, which often drew applause and sometimes even caused pandemonium. They were one of the hardest acts to follow that history has ever seen, since their works literally rocked the world.
They were "The Lunar Men," the Rat Pack of the 18th century. Their lives, discoveries and friendships are described in harmonious detail by Jenny Uglow in her new book, "The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World."
Their stage was not the Sands on the Strip, but rather their laboratories and libraries throughout Britain, particularly Birmingham. They took their name from the fact that they tried to meet each month on the Sunday nearest the full moon, which provided the light to guide them safely home after long nights of discussion and discovery. There was plenty of that, since they truly enlightened the Enlightenment, that vibrant era (too often ignored by Americans with their eyes set on their own revolution) in which scientists could be artists and artisans and entrepreneurs and engineers.
The Lunar Men certainly were. Erasmus Darwin was a famed doctor, as well as an inventor, a botanist and a poet. Joseph Priestley was a preacher, a politician, and a chemist, the first to discover photosynthesis and isolate the element oxygen. James Watt was the father of the steam engine. Matthew Boulton was perhaps the closest thing to a pure businessman in the group. He backed (and fronted much of the money for) Watt's research, in addition to being an engineer and a chemist in his own right. Josiah Wedgwood became the queen's potter and created the Portland Vase, but he was as much a mineralogist and a chemist.
Their backup players were almost as impressive. James Keir was an industrialist and chemist. William Small was a doctor, mathematician and diplomat who managed to smooth over disagreements among the group. William Withering was a botanist; Samuel Galton an engineer. Thomas Day was a Rousseauian idealist whose later interpretation of the latter made him a surprise bestseller and inspired Victorian sensibilities. Richard Edgeworth was also a Rousseauian, but he was an engineer and a gentleman (in the true sense) farmer as well.
That the author manages to tease out the threads of each individual's tapestry of talents is remarkable in itself, but she also weaves their lives together into a coherent whole. Indeed, it is hard to imagine their stories being told any other way, since they so depended on one another for advice, insight and inspiration. Had it not been for Boulton's constant pounding, Watt might have burned out on his failures to engineer a steam engine. Priestley aired out his findings on gasses with Keir and Withering. Wedgwood and Boulton fired one another's competitive instincts in the pottery trade.
These principals are fleshed out with personal letters, anecdotes, paintings and lithographs. Not that Erasmus Darwin (a teetotaler) needed the added bulk, as he became so rotund that he had to have a half-circle cut out of his dining table so his huge stomach would fit. Amazingly, he also became the first Englishman to fly in a large-size make that a super-large size hydrogen balloon. The author records that on one occasion, Watt complained, "Of all the things in life, there is nothing more foolish than inventing." Joseph Priestley's investigations were set back untold hours by his young daughter Sally, who, in the course of cleaning out his lab, washed out all his bottles.
There's an unmistakable lyricism in her descriptions: "Watt was pale, round-shouldered and anxious, thrifty and full of fears; Boulton robust and ruddy and loud, extravagant and incorrigibly hopeful." "The issue of combustion smoldered at the heart of the 'chemical revolution' … swirling around the small, combative figure of Joseph Priestley in his dusty black coat."
There's also a rhythm in the storytelling. While the book is just over 500 pages in length, the chapters are all fairly short, so the pace is quick, but not hurried.
For all her admiration of the Lunar Men, the author doesn't miss a beat when describing their faults. In attempting to raise the perfect wife in the Rousseauian way, Day conducted a horrible social experiment that would have either had him arrested by family services (or possibly named parent of the year). Watt was ruthless in protecting his patents. Darwin and Withering inadvertently poisoned their patients by dosing them with digitalis, a medicine derived from the herb Foxglove, and quarreled over who deserved credit for first describing it.
Nor, while describing their personal diminuendos does the author neglect the crescendos of the revolutionary dissonance in the background. Disagreements over the American Revolution nearly split the band. They argued over England's policy toward Ireland, and debated how best to respond to the French Revolution. Yet when Joseph Priestley's house was burned down by a mob opposed to his Radical politics, his Lunar friends rushed to his aid.
There are a couple of sour notes in the composition: The number of players is so large that it is occasionally difficult to keep track of them all; and for all the book's detail, the writer spends little time discussing the actual evenings the men spent together. However, these are drowned out by the delightful music throughout the volume.
Jenny Uglow's harmonies alone make this book worth reading. The chords struck by the Lunar Men are reverberating today they'll likely long outlast those struck by the Rat Pack of our own time, possibly even those stuck by the King of Crooners himself. The Lunar Men were imperfect people, but in their explorations, efforts and enthusiasims, one can hear an echo of the music of the spheres.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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