Weekend: Sparked by the Light of the Moon; A New Exhibition Opened to Coincide with National Science Week Reveals How 18th-Century Birmingham Was the Centre for a Group of Eccentric Scientists Whose Work Had Far-Reaching Effects on Industry and Society. Andrew Davies Investigates
Byline: Andrew Davies
Just before the Industrial Revolution went into full swing in the 1770s, a group of powerful men began to get together in Birmingham every month at the time of the full moon.
However, despite the romantic, evocative nature of the group's name, the Lunar Society, which gathered at Soho House in 1766, the meeting was for no mystical or supernatural purpose. In fact, it was quite the reverse.
The timing of the gatherings was purely practical. Many of the members travelled from around the city and as far as Lichfield, and, in an age before streetlamps, relied on the moon to light their way.
The subject of conversation around the dinner-table,and indeed the reason for the society's existence, was the furtherance of science.
The Lunar Society's origins can be said to lie in industry - and indeed the discoveries and inventions of its members were highly influential, not only in pure science terms, but also in industry, medicine and transport.
Soho House was the home of Birmingham industrialist Matthew Boulton, and at his estate in what is now Handsworth, Boulton had constructed a manufactory which made ormolu - bronze items heat-gilded in a mix of gold and mercury - objects, silverware, buttons, buckles and other metal 'toys'.
As production increased, he found the Hockley Brook, which had provided the energy to power his machinery through simple waterwheels, was not quite up to the task.
After experiments with steam engines to pump water back above the water wheel, he contacted engineer James Watt, and together they developed large rotary engines that were to help transform industry through the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.
Their association became the seed of the Lunar Society. Growing out of the Derby Philosophical Society, the group attractedindustrialist Josiah Wedgewood, also a business rival of Boulton, and botanist, medic, canal-lock inventor, engineer and poet Dr Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the more famous Charles. Charles was to pick up and run with his grandfather's speculation on the origin of species, first mentioned in one of the doctor's poems.
Other luminaries included Joseph Priestley, who identified oxygen (although he called it 'dephlogisticated air') and experimented with electricity; William Withering, who identified digitalis in foxgloves as a treatment for heart disorders - a drug whose manufactured version is still used today; Drs William Small and Jonathan Stokes; John Whitehurst, CaptainJames Keir, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Thomas Day, Samuel Galton and the Rev Robert Augustus John.
Their interests took in physics and chemistry, botany and medicine, geology and education, engineering and astronomy, colour theory and even aeronautics - all those areas where they could push back the boundaries of knowledge. Hazel Cartledge, curator of the Bright Sparks exhibition at Soho Manor, Handsworth, says: 'People don't realise these men were at the forefront of scientific research at the time. 'Today, scientists are usually only interested in a very narrow field - but they were natural philosophers as well as businessmen, doctors and clerics. …