Chemical Brothers

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

The art of shavings: suspension of an electrified boy, 1749
From: Recherches sur les causes particulières des phénomènes éléctriques, in Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men (FSG)

In contrast to these exciting developments, contemporary medicine had hardly progressed since the dark ages; physicians still dispensed remedies like pigeon's blood and elk's hoof. Erasmus Darwin practiced medicine for a living, but his true calling was obviously natural philosophy. "He was the most ebullient, inventive personality," Uglow replied when asked to pick her favorite Lunatic. "A real genius." Darwin's unquenchable curiosity seized on everything, even garbage. Noticing the phosphorescent quality of the decaying fish heads that littered British streets, he remarked, "I have on a dark night easily seen the hour by holding one of them to my watch." (Phosphorus had in fact been synthesized by chance decades earlier when an alchemist boiled 50 buckets of urine down to a rotting paste, aged it in a cellar, and distilled it until it glowed in the dark.) Yet unlike the single-minded Priestley, Darwin bounced from one interest to the next, exploring underground caverns ("the Regions of Darkness . . . !") and excavating fossils, discovering how clouds and weather fronts form in the atmosphere (through quaintly named "Frigorific Experiments"). After extensive study, he realized that animals must have adapted their features to their environment through centuries of change—unwittingly providing the basis for his grandson Charles's theory of evolution.

illustration: Paige Imatani

Meanwhile, about 25 miles away, the fifth Lunar man was busy building a ceramics empire. While Josiah Wedgwood, manufacturer of fine china, might seem like the odd man out in a science club, he was, Uglow stresses, "in a sense an experimental chemist," constantly inventing new clay mixes, firing techniques, and glazes to improve his products. He initially made a splash with his "greengrocery" line (teapots that resembled cauliflowers, pineapples, and artichokes), then introduced a super-lustrous brand of earthenware, its glaze concocted from a secret recipe. It sold by the thousands and won the approval of Queen Charlotte, who duly appointed him "Potter to Her Majesty." Sadly, when Wedgwood was 38, his diseased right leg required amputation—no mean task in an age before anesthesia. Ever the scientist, he watched the operation unflinchingly and adjusted to his wooden leg with zeal. (He rushed around on it so briskly that he had to carry a spare on him in case of breakage, as well as keeping a "veritable wardrobe of peg-legs" at home.)

Perhaps the most endearing Lunar character was the dam architect Richard Edgeworth, a wealthy eccentric fond of zipping about in a low-slung, one-wheeled carriage of his own design—Uglow describes it as "a sort of high-speed black banana." He dreamed up a primitive telegraph system to cheat on horse races and, rather less practical, a bizarre mode of transport: This was a giant wheel propelled by a man walking forward while standing inside a barrel attached to the wheel's center. Unsurprisingly, he's remembered today mainly as the father of the novelist Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen's literary forerunner.

The Birmingham factory Boswell admired gave the world not just steam-powered engines, but a new word. Instead of selling their machines at a fixed price, Boulton and Watt collected royalties from their customers: a percentage of the money the engines saved them in fuel costs as compared to the old coal-powered engines. When a brewer ordered one to replace the horses that previously drove his barley mill, Boulton and Watt had to devise a different method of calculating royalties on the engine. "The work it does we think is equal to 14 horses"—and so the term horsepower was born.

Having spent five years studying steam engines, gases, and the rest of the Lunar Society's numerous enthusiasms, Uglow admitted, "At times I almost despaired." She sought assistance from historians of science to unravel the details of Priestley's experiments and Watt's prototypes, following their progress through the group's letters. Most strikingly, despite their groundbreaking achievements, the Lunatics cared more about the thrill of discovery than money or fame. They regarded their scientific efforts as "nicknachatory" dabbling or "hobbyhorsicality," since most of them, like Darwin, had other professions. The chemistry-loving Priestley, who was actually a minister, once wrote:

It may be my fate to be a kind of comet, or flaming meteor in science . . . and therefore, like a meteor, it may be my destiny to move very swiftly, burn away with great heat and violence, and become as suddenly extinct.

Priestley's name still crops up in textbooks, but his kind of freewheeling experimentation has indeed become extinct. "At that period, most chemists and engineers used 'ordinary' language" in describing their work, Uglow noted, "unlike the very specialized mathematical papers of today." Science is now the province of highly trained academic researchers, not self-taught amateurs, and is divided into numerous fields (thermodynamics, astrophysics) in a way that the Lunar men, with their interdisciplinary spirit, would have found inexplicable. At one of their meetings, a guest recalled, "we were astonished by hearing a sudden hissing noise": A large black-and-yellow snake had appeared from nowhere to slither around the room. It turned out that Jonathan Stokes—doctor/botanist/chemist—had "seen the poor animal frozen on a bank and put it in his pocket to dissect," only for it to thaw and escape. With its lively take on a forgotten world, Uglow's book illuminates an age when scientific exploration, if crude and haphazard, was also bloody good fun.

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