Climate-Change Worries in the Eighteenth Century

By Drewry, Aubrey | Freeman, July 1998 | Go to article overview

Climate-Change Worries in the Eighteenth Century


Drewry, Aubrey, Freeman


In the 1770s the Lunar Society of Birmingham, England, whose members were some of the leading thinkers of the era, regularly gathered to discuss their concerns about global climate change. They were interested in the scientific aspects of the change, but being entrepreneurs as well as thinkers, they also formulated plans to cope with it. Their basic strategy was to stop the cooling of the earth by dragging icebergs away from the Arctic regions to let them melt in the tropics.

That's right: they were worried about global cooling.

The Lunar Society of Birmingham (1766-1809) was an informal club of never more than 14 men, who met to exchange information on scientific experiments, discuss scientific theory, and promote their own entrepreneurial activities. As the name indicates, they met on the Monday nearest the full moon each month. Among them were several godfathers of the Industrial Revolution, men whose contributions to science and technology, as well as industry and manufacturing, render their names still familiar: James Watt, developer of the steam engine, and his business partner, Matthew Boulton, who was also founder of the Birmingham Mint and a major manufacturer of metal products; Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles and a distinguished naturalist in his own right; William Small, science and math teacher to Thomas Jefferson during a sojourn in America; Josiah Wedgwood, potter to the world and the man who made it possible for ordinary people to eat from china plates rather than out of wooden bowls; and Joseph Priestley, one of the titans of chemistry.

The main tie that brought these luminaries together was a common interest in "natural philosophy" (which we today call "science"). However, many of them also had remarkable business skill and towering entrepreneurial energy. They were thus very much concerned with the application of science to industry Many of them became fellows of the Royal Society as a result of their scientific work, but they were equally proud of their memberships in the Society for the Promotion of the Arts, which emphasized their commitment to practical application.

Small, Watt, and Boulton

The global-cooling story begins with letters between Small and Watt. (The letters are printed in a midnineteenth-century biography of Watt by his son-in-law, James Muirhead.) In 1765, Small had arrived in Birmingham with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. Shortly thereafter, he became family physician to Boulton, at that time a successful 37-year-old silversmith who was busily realizing his great ambition: to make his name "known all over the world as the hallmark of excellent and artistic workmanship" in metals. Small, a native of Scotland, had already made his mark on America by having taught Jefferson at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Many years later, Jefferson would recall that "what probably fixed the destinies of my life" was that Small "made me his daily companion" and "from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science & of the system of things in which we are placed." High tribute indeed, from a man who would himself greatly affect "the system of things in which we are placed." But by 1764, Small had tired of academic life (especially the bickering with his faculty colleagues in Williamsburg who considered him an outrageous radical for lecturing in English rather than Latin!). Thus he returned to Britain and took up his medical practice in Birmingham.

Some months thereafter, Dr. Small entertained a visiting fellow Scot, James Watt. At that time, Watt was eking out a living as a poorly paid instrument maker for the University of Glasgow, his income supplemented by surveying and minor engineering jobs on canals and at coal mines. Despite all that activity, his income was not enough to cover the expenses of his experiments with steam engines. By 1765 Watt had worked out all the "central ideas to be incorporated in his various steam engines for the remainder of his life. …

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