Scientific Societies

The eighteenth-century pioneers of the British Industrial Revolution worked collaboratively, learning from each other, and borrowing and developing past and existing inventions and practices. The Victorians inherited this collaborative mode, and like their immediate predecessors, formalised their work by founding clubs and societies dedicated to specific studies. According to Charles Kingsley, “The best way of learning these matters is by classes, in which men may combine and interchange their thoughts and observations. The greatest savants find this; and have their Microscopic Society, Linnaean, Royal, Geological Societies, British Associations, and what not, in which all may know what each has done, and each share in the learning of all for as iron sharpeneth iron, so a man sharpens the face of his friend” (188, my emphasis).

A brief history of the more significant societies clearly reveals the established pattern described by Kingsley. The oldest, The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, was founded in 1660 when an enlightened Charles II granted it a royal charter. Its importance continued well into the Victorian years, for on the evening of 28 June 1858, it provided the forum in which Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace offered their theory that natural selection explained evolution. Then, Sir Charles Lyell, 1st Baronet, FRS (1797-1875) and Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817–1911), the famous English botanist, arranged for Darwin and Wallace to give a joint presentation at the Linnaean Society on 1 July of ‘On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection’.

The Linnaean Society of London where Darwin and Wallace spoke dates from 1788 when it was founded by the botanist Sir James Edward Smith. It gained its Royal Charter in 1802, and when Linnaeus’ heirs sold his collection of manuscripts, Sir Joseph Banks, himself a leading botanist and president of the Royal Society, persuaded Smith to buy it. The present form of the Linnaean Society, which remains the world’s oldest association of biologists, originated in 29 November 1822, when a meeting of the Linnaean Society held in Soho resolved to form a ‘Zoological Club of the Linnaean Society of London’.

London saw the founding of other societies. The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) formed in 1830, and the Royal Microscopical Society was founded in 1839 as the Microscopical Society of London; in 1866, the society gained its royal charter.

The Birmingham Lunar Society

The societies for the advancement of science and technology also existed outside London, one of the most notable being the Birmingham Lunar Society whose members provide one of the most spectacular pre-Victorian examples of collaboration. Five of the most illustrious men of the early Revolution were members: James Watt, FRS, FRSE (1736-1819), inventor, mechanical engineer, and chemist; Joseph Priestley, FRS (1733-1804), theologian, chemist, grammarian, and political theorist: Josiah Wedgwood, (1730-1795) potter and businessman; Matthew Boulton, FRS (1728-1809) manufacturer and Watt’s business partner; as well as William Small (1734-1775), James Keir (1748-1789), John Whitehurst (1713-1788), William Withering (1741-1799), Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1813), Thomas Day (1748-1789), and the founder, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802).

These were men of many talents. In 1758, for instance, William Small took the Chair of Mathematics at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and is known to have had considerable influence over Thomas Jefferson, who was one of his students. In 1764 he returned to England, and he and Benjamin Franklin became scientific advisors to Matthew Boulton. Small also met Boulton’s partner, James Watt, and their collaboration was an important factor in producing the steam engine. Further, he maintained connections between British and American scientists.

Thomas Day, clearly of a very radical turn of mind, was keenly interested in American affairs. His first publication The Dying Negro an early abolitionist work, appeared in 1773. When the American settlers came to blows with George III’s government, he argued for the rights of the American colonists in his 1776 The Devoted Legions and in 1780 argued in Parliament for an early peace with the revolutionaries.

After meeting and marrying Esther, an heiress from Chesterfield, an industrializing town in the middle of the Nottinghamshire coal fields, Day moved from the industrializing West Midlands to a country estate in the village of Anningsley in Surrey. But even then, he did not retire into rural gentrification but remained a committed radical. Despite Esther Day’s wealth, they moved to a small estate where they lived modestly. Small would not allow Esther to contact her wealthy family, and turned their move into a philanthropic project in which both worked to improve the conditions of the working classes around them. (They were not alone, of course, in their benevolent paternalism.)

John Whitehurst, like the painter Joseph Wright, came from Derby in the East Midlands, where he earned a reputation for his skill in mechanics, pneumatics, and hydraulics. He also constructed several ingenious mechanisms as well as thermometers and barometers, and developed an interest in designing waterworks. In 1778, anticipating William Smith’s first geological map of the British Isles issued in 1815, Whitehurst published his theory on geological strata in An Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth begun while in Derby. Whitehurst was trying to do what Smith spectacularly achieved later: facilitating the discovery of valuable minerals beneath the Earth's surface.

As a Fellow of the Royal Society who had studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, Withering had connections with the Edinburgh School. He was a botanist and produced the medicine digitalis from the foxglove, with the power to reduce an over-reactive heart motion. He was also a geologist, chemist, and physician, who published two volumes of Botanical Arrangement. He enjoyed the collaboration of the other members of the Lunar Society to a lesser or greater extent, and even their children! Mary Anne Galton recalled going for walks with her father, Samuel John Galton, looking for new plants, and the children being supplied with books and microscopes and encouraged to make their own natural history collections. Mary Anne, however, thought she was being "forced" to help Withering to find and collect fungi. Some of the children seem to have found Withering too demanding and so "took nature into their own hands and spent hours painting over the fungi in sundry methods" with various chemicals (Uglow, 383). Furthermore, when Withering and his assistant Stokes fell out, Stokes walked off with Withering’s books, only to return with pages removed to help in his own work. Not all then was happy collaboration!

Erasmus Darwin too was a man of many talents and interests, who did not limit himself to botanical arrangement.He founded the Lunar Society and was grandfather to the Charles Darwin. He was also a member of the Derby Philosophical Society, and he formed the Lichfield Botanical Society to promote the works of the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus and to translate them from Latin into English verse, a project which took seven years. This resulted in two publications: A System of Vegetables between 1783 and 1785, and The Families of Plants in 1787.

He was also a physician, physiologist, slave-trade abolitionist, and poet. He may also have been something of a Republican having turned down George III’s invitation to be the Royal Physician! Odd considering the King’s interests in agricultural and scientific schemes, but not odd considering George himself who was hardly an endearing man.

Other Societies

The Lunar Society was not the only association of natural philosophers. The universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow featured groups which included not only Watt and Erasmus Darwin, but also Joseph Black (1728-1799), David Hume (1711-1776), Adam Smith (1723-1790), Dugald Stewart (1753-1828), and James Hutton (1726–1797).

When you consider how many of these illustrious pioneers were fellows of the Royal Society and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and were members of the Lunar Society, Kingsley’s comment is most apposite: "The greatest savants… have their Microscopic Society, Linnaean, Royal, Geological Societies, British Associations, and what not". He had, however, omitted a very potent factor – marriage.

The Wedgwoods and the Darwins exemplify the importance of judicious marriage to the collaboration which fed the momentum of the Industrial Revolution. In January 1764 Wedgwood married Sarah Wedgwood (1734–1815), his third cousin. They had eight children, of whom Susannah Wedgwood (3 January 1765-1817) married Robert Darwin and became Charles Darwin’s mother. Charles himself married Emma Wedgwood, his cousin. Josiah Wedgwood II (1769–1843) was father to Emma Darwin (née Wedgwood). This combined the two families’ fortunes and was the eighteenth century equivalent of a modern business merger based on scientific, technological, and commercial interests.

Related material


"Encyclopædia Britannica" websites, especially for Davy, Black, Boulton, Dalton, Galton, Grant, Hooker, Trevelyan.

Bulmer, Michael. Francis Galton: Pioneer of Heredity and Biometry. Johns Hopkins University Press. 2003.

Darwin, Erasmus. The Botanic Garden, Part I, The Economy of Vegetation. London: J. Johnson, 1791.

Dugan, Sally and David. The Day the World Took Off. London: Channel Four Books, 2000.

Kingsley, Charles. Historical Lectures and Essays. London: MacMillan: 1902.

The Linnean Society of London. The Society’s website. Web. 8 August 2018.

Priestley, Joseph. History of Electricity. London, 1767.

Uglow, Jenny. The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made The Future. Faber and Faber: London 2002.

Williams, Mark: T.T.V documentary: ‘Industrial Revelations’: History Channel: 2018.

Last modified 8 August 2018