Lunatick Astronomy

Lunatick Astronomy

Andrew Lound


Report of Meeting 14th October 2015

The meeting was conducted in The Furnace Theatre at The Ruskin Centre as this provided a great stage for Andrew to deliver his presentation in his own inimitable (period dressed) style, complemented by sound effects supporting the visual presentation.

Pat Martin welcomed members and visitors to the meeting, referencing the recent “super moon” which many had observed before introducing Andrew Lound and inviting him to commence the evening’s presentation about the Lunar Society, a most learned group of 18th Century gentlemen.

The presentation started to the dramatic 2001 Space Odyssey musical soundtrack before Andrew boomed into action extolling the magnificent moon and the 18th century events which took place under the light of the full moon, describing it as a great period of time with new ideas, new music, language, science, art and opera all emerging through pioneers of the time such as Mozart and Voltaire. But this was a time when astronomy was also at the height of popularity with Robert Hooke identifying the great red spot (3 times larger than the Earth) on Jupiter in 1664, Edmund Halley after observing a spectacular comet on his wedding night calculated and predicted the orbit of the comet which was later named after him and of course Isaac Newton who’s Principia publication formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation which dominated scientists' view of the physical universe for the next three centuries. James Cook then commanded the Endeavor on his first trip to the Pacific, an expedition to observe Venus for the Royal Society (1768-71).

Birmingham however was very much the place to be with a host of pioneers, scientists, inventors meeting up, generally in an inn, to explore new ideas. People such as Matthew Boulton (son of a button maker) discussing and seeking to prove theories with other like-minded prominent people of the day such as James Watt, Joseph Priestley (chemist), Josiah Wedgewood, James Keir (glass), Thomas Jefferson (one day President of the USA), Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Thomas Day, Samuel Boulton Jnr, Benjamin Franklin and William Murdoch. Lord Nelson apparently even attended a meeting on one occasion! And so, through Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin) who coined the term Lunatick, the Lunar Society, the greatest meeting of minds in history was formed. The Lunar Society of Birmingham was in effect a dinner club an informal learned society of prominent figures in the Midlands Enlightenment, including industrialists, natural philosophers and intellectuals, who met regularly between 1765 and 1813 in Birmingham. At first called the Lunar Circle, "Lunar Society" became the formal name by 1775. The name arose because the Society would meet during the full moon, as the extra light made the journey home easier and safer in the absence of street lighting. The members cheerfully referred to themselves as "lunarticks", a pun on lunatics, but this could not have been much further from the truth, as the revolutionaries involved would change the face of the world forever. Venues of the meetings included Erasmus Darwin's home in Lichfield, Matthew Boulton's home - Soho House, Bowbridge House in Derbyshire, and Great Barr Hall.

The Lunar Society evolved through various degrees of organisation over a period of up to fifty years, but was only ever an informal group. No constitution, minutes, publications or membership lists survive from any period, and evidence of its existence and activities is found only in the correspondence and notes of those associated with it. Historians therefore disagree on what qualified as membership of the Lunar Society, who can be considered to have been members, and even when the Society can be said to have existed. Josiah Wedgwood, for example, is described by some commentators as being one of five "principal members" of the Society, while others consider that he "cannot be recognized as a full member" at all. Dates given for the establishment of the society range from "sometime before 1760" to 1775. Some historians argue that it had ceased to exist by 1791 others that it was still operating as late as 1813.

Despite this uncertainty, fourteen individuals have been identified as having verifiably attended Lunar Society meetings regularly over a long period during its most productive eras: these are Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, Thomas Day, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Samuel Galton, Jr., James Keir, Joseph Priestley, William Small, Jonathan Stokes, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, John Whitehurst and William Withering.

 Soho House

Soho House in Handsworth, Birmingham, a regular venue for meetings of the Lunar Society

In furthering their knowledge, members of the Lunar Society developed instruments such as increasingly powerful telescopes to enable them to scour the skies for new comets, planets and moons. In order to ensure great accuracy spider webs strands were used to act as cross heads to calculate star distances and the world of optics was surging ahead at a pace with John Dollond producing achromatic lenses. Dollond telescopes were amongst the most popular in both Great Britain and abroad for a period of over one and half centuries. Admiral Lord Nelson himself owned one. Another had sailed with Captain Cook in 1769 to observe the Transit of Venus. The use of high quality flint glass which had high density was essential to give the best results from telescopes and optical mirrors and this is where James Keir collaborated with Josiah Wedgwood to shape the design of such instruments. Jesse Ramsden was famous for the quality and accuracy of his instruments which established his reputation as the most able instrument maker in Europe for the next forty years until his death in 1800. Ramsden had coincidentally married Sarah Dollond, daughter of John Dollond the famous maker of high quality lenses and optical instruments. These 18th Century ideas are still used today in major telescope installations.

John Michell (25 December 1724 – 29 April 1793) was an English clergyman and natural philosopher who provided pioneering insights in a wide range of scientific fields, including astronomy, geology, optics, and gravitation. Considered "one of the greatest unsung scientists of all time". He was the first person known to propose the existence of black holes (he called them “dark stars”) in a publication for the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1783. Michell constructed telescopes for his own use. One of them, a reflecting telescope with a 10-foot focal length and a 30-inch aperture, was bought by William Herschel after Michell's death. Although it was unusable because the prime mirror had been damaged, Herschel used it as a model to build a similar instrument.

As telescopes became more sophisticated they needed to be mounted in a new style of special building which became known as an observatory. These buildings were often octagonal and the fashionable English architect James Wyatt adopted a gothic concept to his designs - his Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford (1776–94), drew on the Tower of the Winds in Athens (c.50 BC) for its inspiration.


Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford

The observatories and advancing optical technologies enabled those 18th Century boffins to observe planets, eclipses and new moons in a more concise way and to calculate distances, predict and record occurrences of lunar and planetary phenomena and to refine the technology they were developing often hand in glove. Some superb clocks were also made which could now show the season and the time and often featured globes of the earth - a fine example is kept in Soho House to this day. At Soho House a 16ft 6inch dome was added to the building to house a telescope but due to the slump it initially became unaffordable. 18th Century observations discovered new planets such as Uranus and also ‘double stars’.

Andrew then continued his talk to consider the work and achievements of Joseph Priestley who’s considerable scientific reputation rested on his invention of soda water as a preservative to combat scurvy, discovered Oxygen, ‘played’ with electricity, optics and performed experiments on plants.

Priestley published the first volume of his projected history of experimental philosophy, The History and Present State of Discoveries Relating to Vision, Light and Colours (referred to as his Optics), in 1772. In 1780 the Priestleys moved to Birmingham and spent a happy decade surrounded by old friends, many of whom were members of the Lunar Society, until they were forced to flee to London and ultimately to America in 1791 by religiously motivated mob violence in what became known as the Priestley Riots. 25 years of scientific research tragically went up in flames!


The attack on Priestley's home, Fairhill, Sparkbrook, Birmingham

The Lunar Society continued to meet but attention was temporarily drawn by new topics such as steam driven engines for pumping water, especially an area of great interest for Matthew Boulton who applied new and effective efficiencies to the existing Newcomen engine with the able assistance of William Murdoch. This investment made them extremely wealthy and the engineering technology went on to drive the industrial revolution.

However interest in astronomy was stimulated once again on 18th August 1783 when at 9.30pm a huge fireball, now known as the Great Meteor, was observed from Windsor Castle by many witnesses. Perhaps the most prominent was Tiberius Cavallo, an Italian natural philosopher who had happened to be amongst a group of people on the terrace at Windsor Castle at the time the meteor appeared. Cavallo published his account of the phenomenon in v. 74 of the Philosophical Transactions:

Some flashes of lambent light, much like the aurora borealis, were first observed on the northern part of the heavens, which were soon perceived to proceed from a roundish luminous body, whose apparent diameter equaled half that of the moon, and almost stationary in the same point of the heavens. This ball at first appeared of a faint bluish light, perhaps from appearing just kindled, or from its appearing through the haziness; but it gradually increased its light, and soon began to move, at first ascending above the horizon in an oblique direction towards the east. Its course in this direction was very short, perhaps of five or six degrees; after which it directed its course towards the east. Its light was prodigious. Every object appeared very distinct; the whole face of the country, in that beautiful prospect before the terrace, being instantly illuminated.

Cavallo noted both that the meteor, which was visible for around thirty seconds in total, appeared to split into several smaller bodies immediately following the main mass and that a rumbling noise, "as it were of thunder at a great distance", was heard around ten minutes after the meteor appeared, which he speculated "was the report of the meteor's explosion". Other accounts, such as those of Alexander Aubert and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, noted red and blue colour tints in the fireball.


Print of the 1783 Great Meteor by Paul Sandby (1731–1809)

William Herschel, known as the King’s Astronomer (Court Astronomer), was in Dudley for a while and became a friend of Boulton and Watt. He was involved in an acrimonious breach of patent charge against Bull and Hornblower who had allegedly copied the design of the advanced engine for use in Cornwall.

Herschel constructed his first large telescope in 1774, after which he spent nine years carrying out sky surveys to investigate double stars. The resolving power of the Herschel telescopes revealed that the nebulae in the Messier catalogue were clusters of stars. Herschel published catalogues of nebulae in 1802 (2,500 objects) and in 1820 (5,000 objects). In the course of an observation on 13 March 1781 he realized that one celestial body he had observed was not a star, but a planet, Uranus. This was the first planet to be discovered since antiquity and Herschel became famous overnight.


Replica in the William Herschel Museum, Bath, of a telescope similar to that with which Herschel discovered Uranus

So, in summarising Andrew then exclaimed that the period he had talked about must have been a most stimulating and exciting time to live, what with all of the new discoveries being made by a unique meeting of great minds - perhaps the Lunar Society was the greatest “Think Tank” ever as it came up with new ideas and discoveries which like the moon in the night sky remain with us to this day.


William Bloye's gold-covered statue Boulton, Watt and Murdoch, in Central Birmingham

Pat Martin gave a vote of thanks to Andrew for his fascinating and thought provoking talk which was full of so much historical detail, scientific facts and legendary stories - all presented with flair, knowledge, energy and appropriately with good humour. The audience endorsed that sentiment through appreciative applause. An enthusiastic question / answer session then took place before Pat closed the meeting with a further “Thank you so much Andrew for your brilliant talk”.

Lance Cartwright, Amblecote History Society, PR & Communications Officer


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