What was a commonplace book?
In the early modern period, the writing of commonplace books became a popular pursuit for educated and curious people across Europe and America. Commonplace books were essentially scrapbooks containing a range of information useful to the owner such as genealogies, quotes, proverbs, legal information, medical advice, tables of weights and measures, travellers’ tales and observations of nature. Each commonplace book was unique to its owner’s particular interests and enthusiasms.
Erasmus Darwin wrote his Commonplace Book between 1776 and 1787 when he lived with his wife, children and servants in a house overlooking the cathedral close in Lichfield and then later when he moved to Derby. Darwin was a successful physician and it is not surprising that of the 160 pages in the book 60 relate to medical topics. His wider curiosity and creativity is reflected in the rest of the book. Darwin made 63 pages of notes on his inventions and included many ink and pencil sketches of his ideas. His book also contains 17 pages on meteorology, 7 pages on chemistry and a further 7 pages on other topics including botany, gardening and music.
Darwin was an energetic, gregarious and fun-loving man with a curious mind and a passion for invention and experiment. To him, anything seemed possible. He even wondered about changing the wind-flow over the British Isles and suggested that European countries could use their navies to tow icebergs to the equator in order to cool the tropics and make the northern winters warmer.
Darwin was born at Elston, near Nottingham, into a prosperous family who could afford to send him to boarding school and then to university at Cambridge and Edinburgh. After qualifying as a doctor of medicine in 1756, Darwin settled in Lichfield, where he became enormously successful. He was invited to become the royal physician to George III, but declined the offer and remained in the Midlands where he practised medicine for more than fifty years.
In Lichfield, Erasmus Darwin pursued his love of science, publishing his first scientific paper on the formation of clouds in 1757. In the years that followed, he wrote poetry, formulated his thinking on evolution, based on fossils given to him by Wedgwood - fifty years before his grandson, Charles - and developed a range of inventions including a horizontal windmill, a carriage that would not tip over, a steering mechanism for carriages (used in cars 130 years later), a manuscript copier and a speaking machine. Darwin was driven by the belief that questioning, experimenting and inventing would lead to progress and ultimately to improvements in people’s lives.
The Lunar Society
The Lunar Society of Birmingham emerged in the late 1750s out of the friendship between Erasmus Darwin and the manufacturer Matthew Boulton. It was a small and informal group of professional men, manufacturers, and inventors from the Midlands who started to meet at Darwin’s house but who soon moved to Boulton’s house on the Monday nearest to the full moon, when the extra light made the journey home easier and safer. The group gathered in the afternoon, dined together, shared their thinking and conducted experiments. Other members of the Lunar Society were the engineer James Watt, the potter Josiah Wedgwood and a wider group of perhaps ten or more individuals with a passion for scientific experiment. In 1780 the chemist and dissenting preacher from Yorkshire, Joseph Priestley, joined the Society. Similar societies met in other parts of Britain, but the Birmingham one was the most influential.
The Midlands Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution
The members of the Lunar Society were men of the Enlightenment. They played an important part in the age of reason and learning that flourished across Europe and America from about 1680 to1820. By 1700, scientific institutions had grown up across Britain, and a recognition had taken root that science could play an important part in commercial success and national prosperity. Between 1730 and 1800, Britain became the world’s first industrial society. The metal trades of Birmingham, the pottery industry of the West Midlands, its coal mines and transport network are important factors in explaining why the Industrial Revolution first developed in Britain. So, too, are the rational thinking and scientific experimentation that underpinned the Midlands Enlightenment. In this respect, the Lunar Society can be seen as the intellectual driving force of the Industrial Revolution.
Introduction to Erasmus Darwin’s Commonplace Book
Introduction to Erasmus Darwin’s Commonplace Book from the Erasmus Darwin House Museum.
BBC Radio 4 podcast on the Lunar Society
BBC Radio 4 programme on the Royal Society and British Science
Britain and the Rise of Science
Britain and the Rise of Science: an introduction by Lisa Jardine.
Exploring World Cultures at the British Museum: Enlightenment Europe
BBC Radio 4 programme on the Enlightenment in Britain