Lunatic ideas. Colin Tudge on a key study for "anyone who wishes to understand the modern world"

The Lunar Men: the friends who made the future (1730-1810)

Jenny Uglow <em>Faber and Faber, 588pp,

Surely there has never been a more productive and yet more jovial and generally enviable group than the Lunar Society: the dozen physicians, scientists, engineers, industrialists, craftsmen and philosophers, with at least one cleric and a couple of all-purpose dreamers, who met at each other's houses around Birmingham in the late 18th century and into the 19th, always by the light of the full moon (for how else could they have found their way?) and cheerfully called themselves the "Lunatics".

Science was opening up to them: the grand revelation of the 17th century, that the universe was indeed orderly and could be systematically investigated by experiment, was proving abundantly to be true. In principle, the world began to seem totally comprehensible. Most significantly, perhaps, Joseph Priestley isolated oxygen, although he clung to an earlier (phlogiston) theory of combustion that prevented him from grasping its true significance and, in the end, he left the naming of it to the Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier.

Science, in turn, allied to craft, led directly and rapidly to new machines and industrial processes that transformed economies and everyone's lives. James Watt did not invent the steam engine, but he vastly improved the earlier, inefficient design of Thomas Newcomen, using his skills as a craftsman (he began as a Glasgow instrument-maker), but also working from first principles (of latent heat). The amiable Edinburgh chemist James Keir (youngest of 18 children) found a new way to make alkali and used it to manufacture soap in such quantities (in vats 14 feet deep) that he was soon paying £10,000 per year in excise duty. The astonishingly energetic Josiah Wedgwood revolutionised the mass manufacture of ceramics. On the side, he and others, including Watt and the industrialist and machine-maker Matthew Boulton (who was Watt's business partner), helped to create Britain's canals.

The Lunatics were philosophers, too. Erasmus Darwin, the father of the group, belonged to that fine tradition of Englishmen that includes Edward Lear and Thomas Love Peacock, who were hugely clever, affable and fat. Darwin was primarily a physician, so distinguished that George III invited him to become his personal physician, which he refused; he often missed society meetings because he was on the road, visiting the sick, and would send humorous but plaintive notes to say how much he would prefer to be with his chums around Boulton's fireside. Darwin was also an inventor (most bizarrely, of a speaking machine), while among his many excursions into theoretical science were ideas on evolution - anticipating his grandson Charles by 100 years (although he did not, as Charles did, arrive at the idea of natural selection). For good measure, Darwin was a poet, at one time highly regarded; he expressed his evolutionary ideas in verse. The Lunatics had several feet in religion, too. Priestley was a Nonconformist minister who, as Newton had done, wrote more theology than science.

On the edge of the group was the fine local artist Joseph Wright, who most famously painted an early experiment with oxygen, in which a dove is shown suffocating in an evacuated jar (to the distress of one of the scientist's little daughters). Among Wright's many portraits is one of the perennially gloomy James Watt, characteristically with head in hands, prototype of A A Milne's Eeyore. Behind the scenes was Benjamin Franklin, who settled in London for a time in 1757 and came to Birmingham a year later to meet "persons of influence". Boulton was the first of the group to know Franklin, and, writes Jenny Uglow, "with infectious excitement, [he] swept the great man round his friends". Franklin the inventor "worked on fire-grates and water-closets as well as lightning rods". He flew kites in a storm to bring down the lightning. In those early days many speculated that electricity was the force of life. A few decades later, Mary Shelley's Dr Frankenstein borrowed Franklin's technique to pump life into his monster.

The group was political, broadly republican. They keenly supported the American and French revolutions. As Wedgwood wrote to Darwin: "The politicians tell me that as a manufacturer I shall be ruined if France has her liberty, but I am willing to take my chance in that respect . . ." They were anti-slavery. Darwin was incensed to discover that Birmingham manufactured muzzles for slaves. They believed that the new science and mass manufacture should be for the benefit of humanity. Wedgwood kept a careful eye on the welfare of his workers. Above all, they believed in the power of rationality, albeit tempered by a little Nonconformist religion. If there was an English Enlightenment, then, whatever was going on in literary London, this informal band of Midlanders - good fellows and good friends - was at the heart of it.

So here, in significant measure, were the first true stirrings of modernity, and they are encouraging. What has gone wrong? Why hasn't life turned out quite as the Lunatics might have hoped?

Even in their lifetime, there were cracks, contradictions and warning signs. Far from disagreeable - and welcomed by the younger Lunatics - was the idea, which grew after 1750, that life in general should be guided by feelings, rather than by rationality, by sensibility as well as sense. When France grew too hot for him, Rousseau visited Birmingham (not least through the agency of his friend David Hume), and fuelled this shift of emphasis.

More disturbingly, the British government took exception to the Lunatics' republicanism, their stance on slavery and, in particular, their support for the French revolution. This led no less a person than George Canning, undersecretary for foreign affairs, to lampoon the poetry of Darwin (ad hominem dirty tricks were clearly as significant in 18th-century politics as they are now). Then, in 1791, for the same ostensible reasons, a Birmingham mob attacked Priestley's home, burning his papers and books and destroying his instruments. He left for America in 1794, to join his two sons who had already emigrated.

Birmingham relied on goods produced by slave labour, too, and some did not welcome the Lunatics' attacks on it. There were uncomfortable compromises: Boulton had dealings with notorious slave-owners who wanted to buy steam engines. Perhaps this had benign intent: machines to replace raw human power. Yet there are pre-echoes of modern deals with vicious regimes that just happen to supply oil. Even in those days, too, inventors were obsessed with intellectual property rights. James Watt would hardly put pen to paper without seeking a patent, and seemed convinced that everybody else who ever invented anything must, by some means or other, have got their idea from him.

In the end, however, the first and only generation of Lunatics simply grew old and faded away. The eldest, the Derby clockmaker John Whitehurst, was born in 1713 and died in 1788. The youngest, the polymathic natural philosopher Samuel Galton (son of a gunmaker and grandfather of Charles Darwin's cousin Francis Galton) was born in 1753 and died in 1832. Wedgwood died in 1795; Erasmus Darwin in 1802; Priestley in 1804; Boulton in 1809: Watt in 1819; and Keir in 1820. The already much-depleted group held its last meeting as a society in 1813.

Science and the high technologies that emerge from it have largely set the tone of the past 400 years. They have given rise to the factory, to mass transport and communications, and indeed to modern capitalism and its Marxist antithesis. Yet in conventional histories, they and the people who created them are largely written out. As Jenny Uglow so abundantly shows, this neglect is a huge mistake. Here is a fine read, and essential for all who would understand the modern world.

Colin Tudge is writing a book about agriculture