Chemical Brothers

••• Jenny Uglow Shines a Light on the Lunar Men

The year is 1776. Across the Atlantic, the American Revolution has begun, but back in England, on the outskirts of Birmingham, another revolution is taking place almost unnoticed.

Instead of muskets and bayonets, its weapons are pistons and pump rods, and its battlefield is the Soho metalworks, where Matthew Boulton and James Watt are manufacturing the world's first commercial steam engines. James Boswell, always on the lookout for greatness, tears himself away from Samuel Johnson long enough to visit the massive factory, which sprawls across 13 acres and employs 700 men.

It was a scene which I should have been glad to contemplate by [Johnson's] light. The vastness and the contrivance of some of the machinery would have 'matched his mighty mind'. I shall never forget Mr Bolton's [sic] expression to me. 'I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have—POWER.'

Packed with sweeping drama and local color, the acclaimed biographer Jenny Uglow's new book, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), follows a diverse group of British inventors as they cut a swath through the scientific history of the 18th century. Boulton, Watt, Joseph Priestley, Erasmus Darwin, and Josiah Wedgwood were the founders of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a club devoted to studying what was called "natural philosophy," i.e., everything from chemistry and geology to botany and meteorology. These amateur scientists, along with several like-minded enthusiasts, would gather at one another's houses to eat, drink, and conduct experiments, meeting each Sunday nearest the full moon to have light on the ride home (hence the name).

"I first heard of them when writing a biography of Elizabeth Gaskell," Uglow told the Voice. "Her father was a radical student, much influenced by Lunar ideas. They seemed so extraordinary that I had to find out more." The extraordinary men behind those ideas, she discovered, had a boundless curiosity about the world around them. They generated inventions far ahead of their time, arguably paving the way for the Industrial Revolution.

The Lunatics, as they occasionally dubbed themselves, lived in an age when the magic of science gripped the popular imagination. Crowds flocked to demonstrations of newly discovered forces like "ELECTRICITY"—in the words of one advertisement, "that branch of Philosophy which engrosses so much Conversation everywhere." Using strange-looking contraptions, showmen conjured "lightning" inside huge glass globes, or conducted electrical charges through volunteers' bodies. One electrified boy was suspended sideways above a heap of metal shavings, which immediately shot up and clung to him; a man in Germany kissed a charged woman and caused "fire" to flash from her lips. Oddest of all, a French lecturer lined up several hundred Carthusian monks, instructed them to hold hands, and electrified the lot. (Their limbs gave a "sudden spring" as the charge passed through them—possibly the first recorded instance of the "Wave.")

Inspired by displays, the young Priestley carried out his own electrical experiments, consulting with the likes of Benjamin Franklin (then in England), among others. After penning a book on the subject, he turned his attention to a still greater mystery: air. Chemists in those days knew little about gases; the very word gas—coined when the English misheard a heavily accented Flemish doctor speak of air as "chaos"—was a novelty. By fiddling around with the vapors released from various heated metals and testing their effects on mice, Priestley isolated oxygen for the first time. Having inhaled an invigorating whiff of it, he even foresaw the 21st-century fad for oxygen bars: "In time, this pure air may become a fashionable article in luxury." (With characteristic humor, he added, "Hitherto only two mice and myself have had the privelege [sic] of breathing it." Once chemists had identified oxygen and other basic gases, they tried combining them in novel ways. The poet Robert Southey, like his friend Coleridge a keen student of natural philosophy, sampled one such creation. "O excellent air-bag!" he gushed. "I am sure the air in heaven must be this wonder-working gas of delight." (It was nitrous oxide.)

Priestley's tireless tinkering also produced another happy find. Since he lived near a brewery, the inquisitive chemist decided to test the "mephitic air" rising from its fermentation vats by dangling small creatures over them for several minutes at a time. (Let's hope he didn't drop any in the drink by mistake.) A butterfly, frog, and the inevitable mouse lost consciousness but quickly revived outdoors, while dishes of water placed over the vats to absorb the foul air acquired a pleasant, slightly acidic flavor—he'd discovered soda water. Captain Cook took a supply of it on his expeditions, and regular folk brewed it at home in mass-produced "gasogene" kits. A certain J.J. Schweppe even cashed in on the trend by bottling the fizzy stuff.

Priestley's brother-in-law, though not a Lunar Society member, had a similar taste for invention. The foundry manager John "Iron Mad" Wilkinson was so called because he believed that anything could be made from the metal—and he proved it by casting a solid iron desk, sleeping on an iron bed (ouch), and building an iron boat (it really floated). His iron coffin, however, was a bust: Too small to hold him by the time he died, it had to be scrapped.

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