Shapers of the West Midlands Enlightenment

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What can biography tell us about the West Midlands Enlightenment?

The stories of its principal figures, including Boulton, Watt and Wedgwood, are regularly told. Those of the people with whom they worked and socialised, their associates and collaborators, are less familiar, but offer a fascinating insight into the values and aspirations of the age.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography includes the life stories not only of the ‘giants’ of late eighteenth-century science and manufacturing, the manufacturer Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) (see article by Rita McLean), the Scottish engineer James Watt (1736- 1819), master potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) and Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) (see article by Alison Wallis), but of a further two hundred contemporary West Midlanders, who pursued similar goals. These people define the region as the heartland of an English Enlightenment characterised by energy and the practical application of knowledge.

In their different ways Boulton, Watt, Wedgwood and Darwin, as well as lesser-known figures like Maria Jacson (1755-1829), Katherine Plymley (1758-1829), John Barber (1734-1793) and Richard Lovett (1692-1780), who shared a passion for gathering, testing, using and communicating knowledge were exemplars of the ‘Enlightenment’ - the eighteenth-century intellectual and cultural movement by which ‘early modern’ belief systems were challenged by a ‘modern’ commitment to reason and progress.

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The Lunar Men

Led by Erasmus Darwin, the Lunar Society of Birmingham was formed from a group of amateur experimenters, tradesmen and artisans who met and made friends in the Midlands in the 1760s. Most came from humble families, all lived far from the centre of things, but they were young and their...

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