Learned Insane

Simon Schaffer

  • The Lunar Men: The Friends who Made the Future by Jenny Uglow
    Faber, 588 pp, £25.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 571 19647 0

Soon after his 70th birthday, Charles Darwin sat down to compose a Life of his grandfather Erasmus, poet and sage of 18th-century Lichfield, brilliant physician, mechanical inventor, incorrigible heretic and evolutionist.[*] The biography was a mix of piety and polemic. Erasmus Darwin’s fate, his chronic diseases, strenuous urging of social and organic progress, and posthumous obloquy, were too close for comfort to his grandson’s hopes and fears. Charles tried judicious product differentiation, contrasting his own mature biological views with those of the Enlightenment theorist of progressive development, combined with warm praise of the liberal materialist optimism of the 18th-century intelligentsia. The exercise failed, at least within the Darwin family circle. Charles gave the manuscript of his essay to his pious daughter Henrietta, who promptly struck out long passages on sex, irreligion and prejudice. She excised, for example, this passage: ‘His energy was unbounded. But he was unorthodox, and as soon as the grave closed over him, he was grossly calumniated. Such was the state of Christian feeling at the beginning of the present century; we may at least hope that nothing of the kind now prevails.’ The hope was vain. When Darwin’s biography was printed it lacked all but the most rudimentary expressions of Enlightened doctrine. Now Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men, a collective biography of Erasmus Darwin and his extraordinary group of Midlands friends, announces its aim as the recovery of the repute and reality of their visionary milieu of science, industry and art from Romantic contempt and the ‘icy evangelicalism’ which followed.

Uglow’s story can be read as an extended family romance, with businessmen as its heroes and engines as heirlooms. Indeed, it’s rather a pity that she has not added a genealogical table to the chronological charts and lavish vignettes with which her book is ornamented. Charles Darwin’s maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood, master potter and aggressive manufacturer, and like Erasmus Darwin a member of the Society which gives this book its title. These ‘learned insane’, meeting each full moon, were much concerned with tending the fragile light of progress. Always keen on problems of breeding livestock, crops or children, the Lunar men sought to assure their posterity by cunning intermarriage. Susannah Wedgwood, Charles’s mother, suffered much from boils and bad skin when young. Her father, Josiah, dragged her up to Liverpool for a saltwater bath, a modish therapy. Susannah stoutly resisted the prescription, spending her time playing in the street until she smashed her head on a paving stone. So her father left her at a riverside pub while he visited the industrial marvels of the Bridgewater Canal. ‘The whole seems to be the work of the Titans, rather than a production of our pygmy race of beings,’ Wedgwood wrote in his diary. As for his daughter, ‘I hope her skull is safe, it certainly is rather of the thick than paper species.’

Thick-headed stubbornness was one of many endowments Charles Darwin inherited from these impressive ancestors. Wealth was another. When Josiah Wedgwood died early in 1795, eased at the last with a private supply of laudanum from his friend and physician Erasmus Darwin, the ‘vase-maker to the universe’ was able to leave the vast sum of £25,000 to Susannah, who very soon married Erasmus’s son Robert. And when the son of this union, Charles, married his cousin Emma Wedgwood, another of Josiah’s grandchildren, she brought a lavish dowry of £5000 and an annual allowance of £400. Darwin later joked that his family were ‘the degenerate descendants of old Josiah’. The sinister Victorian expert on intellectual and racial heredity Francis Galton made serious work of theories of descent: both of his grandfathers were also Lunar men. Despite impoverished beginnings, the prestige and capital of the leading clans of the Victorian intellectual aristocracy evolved from the startling achievements of their 18th-century forebears. These achievements, titanic yet often tragic, provide Uglow’s book with its compelling theme and its considerable appeal.

The Lunar Society, a rather shadowy gathering of about a dozen men based in Birmingham and its environs between the 1760s and the 1790s, has long been fingered as progenitor of the English Enlightenment and a focus of the nation’s industrial development. It has been described as ‘intellectually the most effective provincial group that ever came together in England’. Yet during the lifetime of its members, who also included the engineer James Watt, the manufacturer Matthew Boulton and the chemist and radical Joseph Priestley, the Society was barely visible in print. No learned memoirs appeared under its auspices, no grand assemblies were organised by its fellowship. According to the son of the botanist William Withering, another Lunar man, it was ‘one of the best private philosophical clubs in the kingdom’, broken up, so it was said, when Tory reaction in the wake of the French Revolution brought politics too near to its otherwise tranquil deliberations. The Society’s existence and activities thus survive for us in the private world of letters and diaries, and the grander stuff of engines and ceramics, canals and clocks, geological maps and botanical catalogues. Uglow very successfully animates these sources and turns them into a coherent tale.

The Lunar Society began to receive significant historical attention only in the later 1950s, when, intrigued by the origins of the British industrial world then in manifest crisis and decline, several scholars of 18th-century science and technology started to list the Society’s membership, about the precise scope of which there has always been pedantic dispute, to catalogue their innovations and document the intimate links between factory-owners and poets, chemists and educators, landed utopians and urban reformers which were manifest in its complex social world. At the same time, other writers began to raise new questions about the cultural roots of the modern machine age. When Raymond Williams published Culture and Society in 1958, he began by pointing out that the later 18th century witnessed decisive shifts in the sense of terms such as ‘industry’, once signifying conscientious diligence, now referring rather to the institutions of manufacture; and ‘art’, more narrowly defined as imaginative creation in place of its prior meaning of human skill in general. Arts and crafts were semantically parted, labour understood through its role in manufacture. Not one of the Lunar men appeared in Williams’s pages, though he attacked notions of culture used to disparage science as philistine and write off politics as squalid. The history of the Lunar Society, especially as Uglow tells it, helps us see how and why these crucial changes happened.

Key to the Lunar men’s success was their amazing ability to make what worked in one place work elsewhere, and, in principle, anywhere. Such replication has long been crucial for any experiment or invention, whose acceptance depends on effective copies functioning in other places as their maker predicts. When Priestley announced that marsh gas contained a highly inflammable component, his friends among the Lunar men waded through bogs trying the test, to no avail – one exacerbated his gout in this vain quest. It makes good sense to link Priestley’s attempts to get other chemists to copy his gas experiments with Wedgwood’s genius at mass-producing identical pots, to compare the rival if decisive endeavours of Withering and Erasmus Darwin to classify and catalogue all British flowers under a workable system of identification with the aggressive efforts of Watt and Boulton to persuade Cornish mine-owners to run their steam engines to drive deep water pumps. Among the many amusing and sometimes moving anecdotes with which Uglow fills her pages are those that describe the sufferings of the dourly depressive Watt in Cornwall, where he went to get his steam pumps working on site. It was ‘the horrible noise’ of these newfangled beasts which impressed: as Watt told Boulton, ‘the noise serves to convey great ideas of power to the ignorant.’

Midlands industrialists and natural philosophers in the later 18th century invented many ways of sending recipes, distributing instructions, marketing models and building test sites. Advertising and after-sales service were as important as production lines and laboratories. Copies of the Portland Vase, which Wedgwood distributed in dozens in 1790, take their place in this story alongside Boulton’s ambitious attempts literally to make money by mechanising the English mint, and those of America and India, too. No doubt the central importance of letter-writing in the Society is explained by such long-range enterprise. Indeed, it emerges from Uglow’s stories that the Lunar network seems to have relied rather more on correspondence than on face-to-face contact. They were often apart, on trade trips and plant hunts, industrial tourism or medical visits. While previous historians were sometimes contemptuous of the informality of the Society’s proceedings, Uglow demonstrates how powerful distant ties can be.

The need to make their creations work elsewhere dominated the public and private lives of the Lunar men. Hence an obsession with offspring, whose character they painstakingly scrutinised for indications of paternal virtue and future greatness. In one of the most interesting chapters of the book, tellingly entitled ‘Creative Copying’, Uglow briefly seizes on this theme. She cites Erasmus Darwin’s endorsement of the Aristotelian notion that ‘man is an imitative animal,’ then moves swiftly on to his own invention of a series of copying machines. He produced the first mechanically duplicated letter in 1778. He tried to make legally sure that no one could copy his invention – all too successfully, since his instructions proved incomprehensible. Meanwhile, he showed the copy machine to the Lunar men, including Watt, who was then searching for a way of duplicating the tedious recipes he needed to send to every Cornish tinmaster running steam-driven pumps. Watt soon devised his own chemical copier, ignored the fears of bankers who feared making forgery easier and of one London gent who ‘wished the inventor was hanged’, and, with two Lunar partners, launched the successful machine on the market in 1780. The tyranny of xerography, part of our modern paper-flooded lives, started here. Even at the end of his life, Watt was still obsessed by replication, whether seeking mechanical ways of copying sculptures – he cemented a bust of Sappho between metal plates, spending hours painstakingly drilling into her face and breast to get a perfect simulacrum of the stone poet – or lambasting his children for their departure from his patriarchal model.

In a startling combination of the fantasies of Medusa and Pygmalion, the Lunar men were much concerned with turning humans into material objects, and bringing inanimate things to life. ‘I have been preparing to make such Machines of the Men as cannot err,’ Wedgwood notoriously wrote of his new factory at Etruria, while Darwin’s clumsy if enthusiastic verses turned the Black Country factory into a living being: ‘Etruria! next beneath thy magic hands/glides the quick wheel, the plastic clay expands.’ When Wedgwood cast about for an icon of his imitative enterprise, he chose the story of the Corinthian maid, who traced the outline of her lover’s shadow on a wall then persuaded her father to fix this image for ever in fired clay. Joseph Wright of Derby, who executed the commission, had first proposed an alchemical theme to Wedgwood, but the potter was in search of some nobler root for his art. Wright got into trouble for his depiction of the girl, the ‘division of the posteriors appearing too plain through the drapery’. Uglow more soberly, certainly rightly, reads Wright’s painting as a deliberate denial of the labour involved in the work, a common theme in the Lunar men’s concerns with the life of manufacture and their ownership of its products.

The Lunar men have not always been treated sympathetically. In 1806 one waspish reviewer of Joseph Priestley’s voluminous political and philosophical works moaned that it was rare ‘to meet with a man of talents outside the metropolis who does not overrate himself and his coterie prodigiously’. This exaggeration of provincial virtue was allegedly due to ‘want of that wholesome discipline of derision to which everything is subjected in London’, with its aristocracies of ‘wealth, office and rank’. The Lunar men certainly recognised, and resented, the power of metropolitan elites. London lobbying for patents and permits meant ‘licking some great man’s arse and be damned to you’, they were told. Decades passed during which such a nationally significant figure as Erasmus Darwin avoided visiting the capital. Not the least of this book’s strengths lies in its evocation of another 18th century, interlocking with but distinct from the more familiar worlds of great estates and metropolitan wit. But Uglow also provides evidence of the ‘Lunaticks’ darker side. Withering used the Birmingham poor as ill-informed guinea-pigs for his newfangled treatment with foxglove. With typical ‘iron in the blood’ Boulton swept away Birmingham cottages to build his new works. ‘Just over the horizon,’ Uglow writes, ‘lay the era of smoking factories and sweated labour.’

The mix of stoic callousness and heroic optimism dominated their world. In the 12 months from summer 1767, Wedgwood lost his brother, his baby son and his own leg, surgically removed and replaced by a wooden prosthesis. The operation’s success would ‘confute all those who deny the present to be an age of miracles’, he remarked. Nor did these men restrict their terrifying fortitude to themselves. Several signed up to Rousseau’s fashionably primitivist programme of moral training. One Lunar man, Thomas Day, took a 12-year-old girl from an orphanage to bring her up as his perfect wife. To inure her to pain, he dropped hot wax on her arm and fired blank bullets at her, but decided she was weak-minded, so sent her off to boarding school. Eventually, she found work as housekeeper to the Burney family, switching from the vicious exercises of the Lunar world to serving the urbanities of Fanny Burney and Samuel Johnson. Sometimes, Lunar women got their own back: one subverted Withering’s strenuous fungus hunts by painting on field mushrooms, then handing over the surprisingly coloured results to the easily fooled naturalist.

Fashion mattered almost as much as factories to the enterprise. The ‘future’ whose origins Uglow charts here includes shopping and spin doctors as well as smokestacks and science. Beautiful pots, powerful drugs and brightly turned buttons needed customers, and the Lunar men were masters of the production of taste. Wedgwood’s 900-piece Frog Service, commissioned by Catherine the Great, was soon turned into an advertisement for Etruria’s wares and, as Uglow points out, helped define a newly romanticised kind of British style. The Russians mattered to Boulton, too: to convince them to buy his mint machines, he took the Russian Ambassador on a musical canal trip past his factory, then underground through limestone caves. Gothick sublimity and ingenious reason were produced together in the Lunar world.

Understanding the relation between Enlightenment and our own views of science and progress still matters. Last year’s president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science recently told his audience that ‘ever since the Enlightenment we have been prepared to believe that human progress can be achieved via the pursuit of knowledge,’ but that many now doubted this belief and that ‘modern science has not removed human fallibility.’ For an acute version of just what science owes to fallibility, read Uglow’s book.

[*] The Life of Erasmus Darwin, by Charles Darwin, is available in a new edition, edited by Desmond King-Hele (Cambridge, 172 pp., £17.50, October 2002, 0 521 81526 6).