Beware the Full Moon. Beware the Lunar Society

The year was 1775. Some very strange events had been observed at an elegant white mansion in Birmingham, England.

In the afternoon before each full moon, one by one, black carriages would start to arrive. Out of each carriage appeared a lone cloaked figure, which moved stealthily to the front entrance and disappeared inside the ghostly building.

Soho House in Handsworth, Birmingham, a regular venue for meetings of the Lunar Society. Derivative works by David James based on photo by Wehwalt
Soho House in Handsworth, Birmingham, a regular venue for meetings of the Lunar Society. Derivative works by David James based on photo by Wehwalt

The local police received many worrying reports: the cook heard howls of laughter; the gardener remembered squeals of excitement; and the butler reported seeing flashes of light.

Were these men doing the work of Satan? Were they sprouting thick hair and long pointed teeth? Were they preparing to go hunting for human flesh?

No, it was something far more sinister. For these were members of a society of intellectuals called the “lunarticks”, and they gathered to do something that, today, we find highly disagreeable.

They talked to each other.

But this was no idle chit chat—their conversations were about things the world had never seen.

The main ringleader was an English manufacturer named Matthew Boulton. Dubbed the Richard Branson of his day, Boulton harnessed the newest technology—steam power—to mechanize factories and mills. He supplied the Royal Mint with steam-powered machines to foil the scourge of counterfeiters that had taken over Britain’s coinage—and made enough new copper coins to pay real wages to the working poor across Britain.

Plaster bust of Matthew Boulton. Credit Birmingham Museums Trust
Plaster bust of Matthew Boulton. Credit Birmingham Museums Trust

Boulton was guilty of industrial revolution on a grand scale. From humble beginnings, he expanded his father’s buckle-making business into the largest manufacturing complex in the world—the Soho Manufactory— producing all manner of fine decorative metal work.

1770. Clock case, Matthew Boulton. Credit metmuseum.org
1770. Clock case, Matthew Boulton. Credit metmuseum.org
c. 1770. Candelabrum. Matthew Boulton. Credit Art Institute of Chicago
c. 1770. Candelabrum. Matthew Boulton. Credit Art Institute of Chicago
1770. Pair of perfume burners. Matthew Boulton. Credit metmuseum.org
1770. Pair of perfume burners. Matthew Boulton. Credit metmuseum.org

Boulton’s co-conspirator was a wickedly clever man from one of the most notorious families in history—the Darwins. Erasmus Darwin was an English physician, natural philosopher, physiologist, and slave-trade abolitionist.

Grandfather of the infamous evolutionary Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin’s poems included stanzas about natural history, and a statement of evolution and the relatedness of all forms of life.

Erasmus Darwin by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1770
Erasmus Darwin by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1770

They called themselves “lunarticks” (a play on the word lunatics), and later, the “Lunar Society” because they only met on days with a full moon, claiming that it provided enough light for a safer journey home.

But in truth, the full moon inspired their wicked genius and they fed off each other’s intelligence like a group of vampires feeding off blood.

For it was the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and members of the Lunar Society were developing concepts and techniques in science, agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and transport that would change the world.

Boulton and Darwin were not alone—they had recruited others to join their Lunar Society, including Boulton’s own business partner, James Watt.

Watt modified Newcomen’s steam engine, improving it’s efficiency and cost-effectiveness. It powered the industrial revolution not just in Britain, but around the world. Every light bulb in existence bears his name—”watt”, the unit of power.

James Watt, Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer
James Watt, Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer
James Watt and the Steam Engine by James Eckford Lauder. Scottish National Gallery
James Watt and the Steam Engine by James Eckford Lauder. Scottish National Gallery

The famous Staffordshire potter, Josiah Wedgwood (1730 – 1795) was also a member of the Lunar Society. He founded the Wedgwood Company in Stoke-on-Trent, England, and is credited with bringing the entire pottery trade into the industrial age through the division of labor and mechanization.

Josiah Wedgwood. Derivative works by David James based on photograph by stephen betteridge
Josiah Wedgwood. Derivative works by David James based on photograph by stephen betteridge

In 1765, his factory’s fine porcelain caught the attention of British Royalty. Queen Consort Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz gave official permission to call it “Queen’s Ware”.

c 1780. Platter. Josiah Wedgwood. Credit metmuseum.org
c 1780. Platter. Josiah Wedgwood. Credit metmuseum.org
c. 1785 Detail of Medusa, Josiah Wedgwood at the Art Institute of Chicago. Credit Anne Peterson, flickr
c. 1785 Detail of Medusa, Josiah Wedgwood at the Art Institute of Chicago. Credit Anne Peterson, flickr
c. 1790. Belt Clasp with a Female Making a Sacrifice. Josiah Wedgwood with metal frame by Matthew Boulton. Credit Walters Art Museum
c. 1790. Belt Clasp with a Female Making a Sacrifice. Josiah Wedgwood with metal frame by Matthew Boulton. Credit Walters Art Museum

Their influence spread far and wide in a network that reached the American colonies. There, a co-conspirator named Benjamin Franklin helped spread their evil, industrial ways.

Franklin was introduced to the Lunar Society when he traveled to Birmingham, England, in 1758, with the intention of improving “Acquaintance among Persons of Influence”. With the lunarticks, he had hit the jackpot, and returned to Birmingham in 1760 to conduct experiments with electricity at Boulton’s house.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

Another world-changing meeting had finally come to a close and the Lunar Society left Boulton’s home. One by one, black carriages arrived and then vanished into the night … until the next full moon.

Soho House in Handsworth, Birmingham, a regular venue for meetings of the Lunar Society. Derivative works by David James based on photo by Wehwalt
Soho House in Handsworth, Birmingham, a regular venue for meetings of the Lunar Society. Derivative works by David James based on photo by Wehwalt

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