More Than Rote Facts & Figures

More Than Rote Facts & Figures
“‘Now, what I want is, Facts.  Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life.  Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.  You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.  This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children.  Stick to Facts, sir!’

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve.”

From ‘Hard Times – For These Times’
By Charles Dickens (1854)

As someone in Britain who went to school in the era of Margaret Thatcher ("milk snatcher"), my history education from the ages of 10 to 16 was effectively limited to hard-boiled, concentrated facts and figures relating to the Industrial Revolution, with a sprinkling of World War 1 & World War 2 jingoism thrown in for good measure. Thankfully (& perhaps astonishingly) this nauseatingly Gradgrind-esque introduction didn't succeed in putting me off history for life, but conversely it perhaps gave me the inkling that there must be so much more to history than simply this – and if any book amply demonstrates that my younger-self's hunch was true, then this is that book!
“The earth turns and the curving shadow sweeps round the globe. The sun sets, the moon rises, and all that is familiar feels suddenly strange. In an age before street lights, link boys carry torches to see city-dwellers home, while in the countryside starlight and moonlight are the only guides. The footpads are out, a darker blackness against shadow, so for safety’s sake men walk together when they roll back from the coffee-house, the tavern and the club. And in the eighteenth century clubs are everywhere: clubs for singing, clubs for drinking, clubs for farting; clubs of poets and pudding-makers and politicians. One such gathering of like-minded men is the Lunar Society of Birmingham. They are a small, informal bunch who simply try to meet at each other’s houses on the Monday nearest the full moon, to have light to ride home (hence the name) and like other clubs they drink and laugh and argue into the night. But the Lunar men are different – together they nudge their whole society and culture over the threshold of the modern, tilting it irrevocably away from old patterns of life towards the world we know today …”

From ‘The Lunar Men – The Friends Who Made the Future’
by Jenny Uglow (Faber & Faber, 2002)

'The Lunar Men' is a densely written, yet utterly rewarding tome which shows how the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment era ethos of the eighteenth century paved the way for the subsequent industrial revolution which transformed British society and ultimately shaped the way we live today. Taking the Lunar Society as her lens through which to do this, Jenny Uglow sets out in formidable detail how the scientific endeavours of these men belied the means by which they each made their livelihoods, how they were each interconnected not simply amongst themselves, but also through correspondence with their counterparts on the Continent and in America, as well as the influences derived from their spouses in these projects, which were often continued by their children, and all of which is dizzingly set in the broader context of the times (both political and social) in which they lived – making this book a truly impressive and enjoyable read. 

It's not just the distinct characters of the Lunar men themselves – John Whitehurst, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgewood, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, William Small, James Keir, James Watt, William Withering, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Thomas Day, and Samuel Galton – whom Uglow brings to life, but the revolutionary era in which they lived too. As a portrait of such a dynamic epoch it teems and wriggles with detail, furiously busy and energetic apparently as much in the living as in the retelling itself. Jenny Uglow is a companionable guide with a seemingly encyclopaedic interest which ably matches the curiosity of the Lunar men themselves.,_1768.jpg

“The group itself was more than an assortment of single beings. It had an evolving life of its own, becoming almost a mirror, or a microcosm, of the way that the different currents flowed together through the second half of the eighteenth century, conflicting and colliding to create a new society. And these appear differently in different lights. The Lunar group were bourgeois capitalists who constantly downplayed the role of labour and overstated the importance of leaders, thinkers, inventors; but they were also radicals, educators and firm believers in the democracy of knowledge. Buoyant, sparkling, self-made men, they used the old networks of patronage and class, but also defied them, shifting the axis of power from metropolis to province, from money men to industry, from Parliament to the people.”

Finally, in reading this book, it feels as though all those mind-numbing facts and figures of my distinctly dreary early history lessons have suddenly come to life living, breathing, thinking, talking individuals linked up with wheezing, thundering, steam-puffing, infernal machines, and the inquisitive exuberance of tightly-crammed jottings in battered notebooks painstakingly turned into learned books and technically brilliant new types of ceramics; swishing butterfly nets, tinkering at an endless range of curiosities with determined seriousness of oxygen and laughing gas, hot air balloons, thermometers, canals, experimental air-pumps and electrical apparatus, alongside restless angry mobs, philosophers, anti-slavery campaigners, revolutionaries, free-thinkers, pioneering scientists, artists, engineers, and so much more, all happening simultaneously ... It's enthralling stuff, exactly what a history lesson should be!

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