Eighteenth century lunacy

The Lunar Men                 Jenny Uglow

This is a series of linked biographies of a floating group of friends and associates based in and around Birmingham in the second half of the 18th century. The group met monthly, on a lunar cycle, to discuss matters of science and philosophy. The modern world would have taken a slightly different course without their contributions. Matthew Boulton and James Watt developed the use of steam power in the mines of Cornwall and subsequently more generally in manufacturing industry. Josiah Wedgwood allied chemical research to the industrial process of crockery production and also helped to develop the modern consumer market for ‘luxury’ goods. Erasmus Darwin was in many ways the central figure of the group; a polymath doctor who made significant contributions to the description and cataloguing of the natural world, as well as prefiguring the evolutionary theory later developed by his and Josiah’s grandson Charles.

The Lunar Men not only looks at their intellectual interests, which were wide and varied, but also at their involvements in contemporary issues such as canal building, road improvements, patent laws and political reform. Many of the main characters came from dissenting religious traditions and were excluded from the major centres of political influence and finance. They thus developed their own associations and helped one another out with their schemes and plans for the future.

Jenny Uglow has given us a very useful guide to the late 18th century and the early phase of the industrial revolution. The Lunar Men can be seen as the more sober, striving provincial bourgeois Beatles to Linebaugh’s proletarian, urban collectivist Rolling Stones documented in the London Hanged; the Players vs Gentlemen, Redbrick vs Oxbridge etc across the many peculiarly English markers of class.

The rise of Birmingham, Manchester and other provincial cities in the manufacturing age can partly be understood by the exclusion of Dissenters from the older guild dominated modes of production which operated in London and the older provincial cities. Dissenting entrepreneurs were freer to try and develop their business without any traditional guild restrictions on work processes or on goods produced. Birmingham makes an interesting counterpoint to the large specialised factories which operated in Manchester (which became a noun describing cotton goods) with its tradition of smaller enterprises focussed more on specialised metal work and tool production.

Brad DeLong has suggested that Communist thought would have been differently formulated if the Engels family had done business in Birmingham instead of in Manchester. He hypothesises Marx as more of a cooperative democratic socialist, but this is an unknowable counterfactual.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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