Richard Melson

July 2006

Birmingam Lunar Society

The Lunar Men who shaped the future

Murdock locomotive


This miniature locomotive was the very first self-propelled vehicle in England. Steam moved a tiny 20mm piston inside a small cylinder, which gave power for the vehicle to travel. It was designed in about 1784 by William Murdock, a friend and employee of Matthew Boulton and James Watt, members of the famous Lunar Society of Birmingham.
Between about 1760 and 1800, the ‘Lunar Men’ made many experiments, discoveries, innovations and inventions. Because of them industrial Birmingham also became known as an intellectual and scientific centre.

The Lunar Society was a regular gathering of great scientists and industrialists, including Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood and William Murdock. They met on the night of the full moon in order to find their way home afterwards.

Their curiosity, energy and tireless enterprise accelerated industrial progress.

James Watt’s copying press

The Society has been described as the thinktank of the Industrial Revolution.


Lunar Society member James Watt is best known for improving steam engines. As a businessman who travelled widely Watt had to take copies of paperwork on his travels. This motivated him to invent a copying device in 1780. His son James Watt Junior, who also developed several other designs of copying press, made this copying press to Watt’s design. It was a great success. The American statesman Benjamin Franklin, the Russian Duchess Dashkova, and American presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson all used Watt’s copying presses.

Modern model of the first fully developed Watt’s rotative engine of 1788.


James Watt’s early engines had been used mainly for pumping, as they simply drove a pump rod up and down.
The rotative engine, developed in the 1780s, was able to drive wheels. Such engines were employed much more widely, for powering the mills and the machines at factories.
Watt patented several devices that would achieve rotary motion. The sun-and-planet motion, developed by Murdock, helped to improve their performance. Boulton & Watt rotary engines, like their pumping ones, became the best in the world.

James Watt’s revolutionary steam engine

James Watt Steam Beam (‘Smethwick’) Engine

This is the oldest working steam engine in the world. It was designed by the firm of Boulton & Watt and installed on the Birmingham-Wolverhampton canal in 1779. It saved water by pumping it back up a series of canal locks at Smethwick.
The engine lifted the equivalent of 1,500 buckets of water each minute! The water refilled the canal at the top of the locks, so that 250 boats could pass through the locks every week.
The steam engine revolution had begun - but Watt had a rival

James Watt’s competitors included Matthew Murray. He also influenced the development of steam engines, although less than Watt and his partner Matthew Boulton.
Like James Watt, Murray started with building large beam engines. He quickly responded to the need for a smaller engine - compact in size and easy to install. Murray patented this highly original design in 1802. This elegant steam engine is one of only two known to survive (the other is in the USA). Murray’s company continued after his death, but James Watt’s company was even more successful...

James Watt’s revolutionary steam engine

The Smethwick Engine House being demolished in 1897


The design of this engine was based on James Watt’s patent of 1769 ‘for a new method of lessening the consumption of steam and fuel in fire engines’. It was the first engine in the world to use both the expansive force of steam and a vacuum at the same time.
Boulton & Watt’s engines marked the start of the Industrial Revolution. For the first time in history, production became independent of water, wind, animal and human power as its source of energy. Engineering had opened up new era.

Matthew Murray’s elegant design

Murray Engine

Matthew Boulton’s ambition was to change Birmingham’s reputation. The town was known for making small objects made of iron, brass, or steel. These were often called "Brummagem toys" because of their cheapness and sometimes poor quality.
Boulton aimed to earn Birmingham a reputation for quality, taste, and fashion. In the 1770s, he produced silver and silver-plated items, ranging from salt-cellars to church plates. He used designs by leading artists.
Boulton also pressed to establish an Assay Office in Birmingham in 1773 to hallmarking items made of precious metals.

The Lunar Society was a discussion club of prominent industrialists, natural philosophers and intellectuals who met regularly between 1765 and 1813 in Birmingham, England. At first called the Lunar Circle, 'Lunar Society' became the formal name by 1775. The society's name came from their practice of scheduling their meetings at the time of the full moon. Since there was no street lighting, the extra light made the journey home easier and safer. They cheerfully referred to themselves as "lunaticks", a pun for lunatics. Venues included Erasmus Darwin's home in Lichfield, Matthew Boulton's home, Soho House, and Great Barr Hall.

The members of the Lunar Society were very influential in Britain. Amongst those who attended meetings more or less regularly were Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, Samuel Galton Junior, James Keir, Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, John Whitehurst and William Withering.

More peripheral characters and correspondents included Sir Richard Arkwright, John Baskerville, Thomas Beddoes, Thomas Day, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Anna Seward, William Small, John Smeaton, Thomas Wedgwood, John Wilkinson, Joseph Wright, James Wyatt, Samuel Wyatt.

Antoine Lavoisier frequently corresponded with various members of the group, as did Benjamin Franklin, who also visited them in Birmingham on several occasions.

As the members grew older and died, the Lunar Society ceased to be very active and was closed in 1813. Most former members had died by 1820.

Among memorials to the Society and its members are the Moonstones; two statues of Watt and a statue of Boulton, Watt and Murdoch, by William Bloye; and the museum at Soho House – all in Birmingham, England.

Further reading:

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World

Faber & Faber (2002) ISBN 374194408.

Lunar Society of Birmingham

July 27, 2006