Chemical Brothers


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.

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.

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.