Image showing an extract from a letter from James Watt to Dr Darwin

The Lunar Society

During its existence from the 1750s to the end of the century the Lunar Society included (although not all at the same time) John Whitehurst, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestly, William Small, James Keir, James Watt, William Withering, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Thomas Day and Samuel Galton. Their informal meetings were a mixture social gatherings, experiments and discussion. Boulton first met Dr Erasmus Darwin, the father of Charles, in 1757 through his in-laws. The two struck up a firm friendship based on their scientific experiments and curiosities. In 1765 Benjamin Franklin introduced Boulton to Dr William Small and it was Dr Small who first showed James Watt around the Soho factory in 1767. The two later corresponded over Watt’s adaptations to the steam engine.

Yet it wasn’t until the untimely death of Dr Small in 1775 that the group of friends decided to meet monthly on the Sunday nearest to the full moon, so as to have enough light to ride home by. They had dinner at two and would continue until at least eight in the evening. As well as meeting they would often write to each other. When Darwin was unable to attend due to a fever he wrote a letter of lament for his absence:

“Lord! What inventions, what wit, what rhetoric, metaphysical, mechanical and pyrotechnical, will be on the wing, bandy’d like a shuttlecock fro, one to another of your troop of philosophers!”
[Letter. Erasmus Darwin to Matthew Boulton 5 April 1778. MS 3782/13/53/87]

This style of writing passed among the members. Priestly opened his letter of 29 April 1783 to Watt:

Behold with surprise and with indignation the figure of an apparatus that has utterly ruined your beautiful hypothesis, and has rendered your works of labour in working, making, and writing, almost useless.”
[Letter. Joseph Priestley (London) to James Watt (Harper's Hill) 29 April 1783. MS 3219/4/86/7]

The image above is a letter from James Watt to Dr Darwin in 1781 informing Darwin of the proposed discussion topics for their next gathering. These were obviously men so wrapped up in their experimental exploits that even their letters betray their complete fascination with what they studied.

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