Edgeworth belonged to the Lunar Society of Birmingham from 1766, that is to say that he joined it in its second year of existence. The Lunar Society of Birmingham was a British dinner club and informal learned society of prominent figures in the Midlands Enlightenment, including industrialists, natural philosophers and intellectuals, who met regularly between 1765 and 1813 in Birmingham. It’s membership was constantly changing during it’s fifty year existence) He explains in his Memoirs that he also belonged to an informal London gathering of men of learning, which he calls the society of Slaughter’s Coffee House (Old Slaughter’s Coffee House was a coffee house in St Martin’s Lane in London. Opened in 1692 by Thomas Slaughter, it was the haunt of many of the important personages of the period.), and whose distinguished members included John Hunter(Scottish surgeon), Joseph Banks(botanist) and Captain Cook(Explorer).
It is clear that, in his mind, these two societies were not radically different, though twenty-first-century scholars would say that the Birmingham Lunar Society was much more concerned with the technological applications of science than the London coffee house society. Indeed, of the members of the Birmingham Lunar Society, who met at Matthew Boulton’s (manufacturer and business partner of James Watt) house, Edgeworth says that they were “men of very different characters, but all devoted to literature and science5” and the London society he defines as a “literary society”.
The great difference we perceive between those two groups has to do with the increasing differentiation among fields of knowledge which took place from the turn of the nineteenth century and with the attendant widening gap between the meanings of the words “literature” and “science”. To Edgeworth, “literature” still meant polite learning, and “science” was knowledge acquired by study as well as experimental science. The porousness and flexibility of the concepts is confirmed by his definition of a “literary society” : in such a society, he says, “the first hints of discoveries, the current observations, and the mutual collision of ideas, are of important utility”. Edgeworth much enjoyed the collaboration, the mutual help which were defining features of those societies. Such was his altruistic interest in the progress of knowledge that he did not resent other people’s appropriating his ideas or building on them to effect a discovery. As his daughter Maria puts it in the second volume of his memoirs which she wrote up after his death, “he was careless about fame, to a degree that would hardly be believed by those, who are jealous of every petty rivalship of invention, and who raise the cry of plagiary at the appearance of every resemblance or coincidence of ideas”.
Among the members of the Lunar Society were Erasmus Darwin(physician and naturalist), James Watt (inventor and engineer), Joseph Priestly (chemist and naturist), Josiah Wedgwood (potter and entrepeneur), Humphry Davy (chemist and inventor), Thomas Beddoes (physician and scientific writer), Thomas Day(author and abolitionist)
Edgeworth was particularly interested in mechanics. Over the years, he worked on and designed carriages, carriage wheels, sailing carriages, an improved road surfacing, an early form of the semaphore telegraph, among other things – his home, Edgeworthstown, was full of the results of his “mechanical” ingenuity and that of some of his children. What had started as the desultory research of a dilletante in his youth was “in more mature years” “pursued in the patient spirit of philosophical investigation, and turned to good account for the real business of life, and for the advancement of science”. With him, there was never any split between theory and practice. While the prevailing notion of the time was that ‘a gentleman never got his hands dirty’ Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who was the only gentleman among the members of the Lunar Society – insofar as he was the only landowner – never thought that practical work was demeaning. Indeed, in the first speech he made in the House of Commons of Ireland on 6th February, 1800, he stated trenchantly: “One manufacturer is worth more than twenty squires”.