Cover image for The lunar men : five friends whose curiousity changed the world
The lunar men : five friends whose curiousity changed the world
Uglow, Jennifer S.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [2002]

Physical Description:
xx, 588 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm
General Note:
Originally published in 2002 by Faber and Faber, Great Britain as: The lunar men : the inventors of the modern world, 1730-1810.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
T39 .U35 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
T39 .U35 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



From the celebrated author of Hogarth--An animated, swarming group portrait of the friends who launched the Industrial Revolution In the 1760s a group of amateur experimenters met and made friends in the English Midlands. Most came from humble families, all lived far from the center of things, but they were young and their optimism was boundless: together they would change the world. Among them were the ambitious toymaker Matthew Boulton and his partner James Watt, of steam-engine fame; the potter Josiah Wedgwood; the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, inventor, and theorist of evolution (a forerunner of his grandson Charles). Later came Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen and fighting radical. With a small band of allies they formed the Lunar Society of Birmingham (so called because it met at each full moon) and kick-started the Industrial Revolution. Blending science, art, and commerce, the Lunar Men built canals; launched balloons; named plants, gases, and minerals; changed the face of England and the china in its drawing rooms; and plotted to revolutionize its soul. Uglow's vivid, exhilarating account uncovers the friendships, political passions, love affairs, and love of knowledge (and power) that drove these extraordinary men. It echoes to the thud of pistons and the wheeze and snort of engines and brings to life the tradesmen, artisans, and tycoons who shaped and fired the modern age.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Uglow's lively chronicle focuses on five remarkable men, the leading spirits of England's eighteenth-century Lunar Society: pioneering manufacturer Matthew Boulton; the gregarious physician, poet, and biological theorist Erasmus Darwin; the ingenious inventor James Watt; the gifted potter Josiah Wedgwood; and the heterodox preacher and groundbreaking chemist Joseph Priestley. Capturing the sense of imaginative daring that united these five--and the others who gravitated to them--Uglow recounts their lively monthly meetings (held on the Monday closest to the full moon) and the stunning variety of projects and discoveries that came out of their collaboration. Readers learn, for instance, how Boulton helped Watt surmount the difficulties encountered in putting his steam engine to work in the mines of Cornwall and how Priestley's experiments with oxygen set Darwin off on his own muddy investigations of gasses. Seeing in her subjects no mere coterie of ivory-tower theorists, Uglow hails the Lunar men as audacious advocates of a modern new world, mechanized, egalitarian, and enlightened. Yet she also acknowledges that in their optimistic fantasies, these visionaries failed to anticipate the ugly underside of the Industrial Revolution they helped launch. Rich in anecdote and insight, this is a book sure to attract both the casual browser and the serious specialist. --Bryce Christensen

Publisher's Weekly Review

This hefty volume combines prodigious research with an obvious fondness for the subject matter. Uglow, an editor at U.K.'s Chatto & Windus publishing house, garnered praise for her incisive book on the life and images of William Hogarth as well as for her biographies of Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. Here, Uglow details the wild inventions of the 18th century, with the turbulent changes in the Georgian world as backdrop, and so delivers a complete, though at times ponderously detailed, portrait of the men who formed the Lunar Society of Birmingham. The society was a kind of study group for the nascent Industrial Revolution, which would transform England in two generations. Among the lunar men were toy maker Matthew Boulton, James Watt of the steam engine, potter Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen, and physician and evolutionary theorist Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's grandfather. As Uglow writes, its members met on the full moon (to facilitate travel at night), "warmed by wine and friendship, their heads full of air pumps and elements and electrical machines, their ears ringing with talk, the whirring of wheels and the hiss of gas." Each was accomplished in his profession, and yet each applied boundless reserves of energy and inventiveness to outside interests, from the practical, such as canal-building, herbal medicines and steam-propelled water pumps, to the outright bizarre, such as Erasmus Darwin's fantastic mechanical talking mouth. Uglow's writing has great breadth of subject and character-along with the occasional bawdiness, too. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Uglow, editor at Chatto & Windus and author of Hogarth: A Life and a World, has written a lively account of a remarkable group of individuals, in 18th-century England, when men's clubs proliferated. The clubs not only offered a forum in which individuals with like interests could gather for discussion, but members offered each other physical protection afterward when they left the coffee house, tavern, or private home that served as their meeting place. In the 1760s, in the English Midlands, a group of amateur experimenters came together to form a club called the Lunar Society of Birmingham-so-called because the club met at each full moon. The members included James Watt, inventor of the steam engine; Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin and an inventor and evolutionary theorist in his own right; Josiah Wedgwood, the potter; Joseph Priestly, discoverer of oxygen; Matthew Boulton, the toymaker; and others who would make remarkable contributions to science and industry. The author makes a convincing case for the importance of this talented group, whose efforts, especially James Watt's work with steam engines, would help kickstart the Industrial Revolution. Although the publisher compares this multiple biography with Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, the Lunar Society men bore greater resemblance to capitalist doers than philosophers. This work is recommended for public and academic libraries.-Robert J. Andrews, Duluth P.L., MN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Uglow identifies 12 principal Lunar men ranging from John Whitehurst (1713-88), the eldest, to Samuel Galton (1753-1832), the youngest. She regards five as the core of the group: Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, and Joseph Priestley. The book is complex, comprehensive, often compelling, and overall, excellent. It includes a brief prologue ("Waxing"), an epilogue ("Waning"), and 40 chapters, divided into four "Quarters." The comprehensiveness and resulting complexity stem from the inclusion of almost everyone who was associated with any aspect of the science, technology, and arts in the period--from the birth of Darwin (1731) to his death (1802)--that led to the Industrial Revolution in Britain. This reviewer found most compelling many new insights about the personal and family lives of the participants, with abundant quotations from letters and memoirs. Although the Lunar Society plays a minor role, the author establishes her theme that the "Lunar men [who] seemed so ... seductive ... and so dangerous to the entrenched status quo [were both] fallible and extraordinary,... [and] were, without a doubt, men who changed the world" (prologue). There are 86 pages of chronology, acknowledgements, sources, chapter notes, and extensive index. ^BSumming Up: Essential. All levels. E. R. Webster emerita, Wellesley College