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Wednesday, July 1, 1998

Climate-Change Worries in the Eighteenth Century

Members of England's Lunar Society Feared Global Cooling

Aubrey Drewry is the R. Hugh Daniel Professor Of Business and Free Enterprise at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama.

In the 1770s the Lunar Society of Birmingham, England, whose members were some of the leading thinkers of the era, regularly gathered to discuss their concerns about global climate change. They were interested in the scientific aspects of the change, but being entrepreneurs as well as thinkers, they also formulated plans to cope with it. Their basic strategy was to stop the cooling of the earth by dragging icebergs away from the Arctic regions to let them melt in the tropics.

That’s right: they were worried about global cooling.

The Lunar Society of Birmingham (1766-1809) was an informal club of never more than 14 men, who met to exchange information on scientific experiments, discuss scientific theory, and promote their own entrepreneurial activities. As the name indicates, they met on the Monday nearest the full moon each month. Among them were several godfathers of the Industrial Revolution, men whose contributions to science and technology, as well as industry and manufacturing, render their names still familiar: James Watt, developer of the steam engine, and his business partner, Matthew Boulton, who was also founder of the Birmingham Mint and a major manufacturer of metal products; Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles and a distinguished naturalist in his own right; William Small, science and math teacher to Thomas Jefferson during a sojourn in America; Josiah Wedgwood, potter to the world and the man who made it possible for ordinary people to eat from china plates rather than out of wooden bowls; and Joseph Priestley, one of the titans of chemistry.

The main tie that brought these luminaries together was a common interest in “natural philosophy” (which we today call “science”). However, many of them also had remarkable business skill and towering entrepreneurial energy. They were thus very much concerned with the application of science to industry. Many of them became fellows of the Royal Society as a result of their scientific work, but they were equally proud of their memberships in the Society for the Promotion of the Arts, which emphasized their commitment to practical application.

Small, Watt, and Boulton

The global-cooling story begins with letters between Small and Watt. (The letters are printed in a mid-nineteenth-century biography of Watt by his son-in-law, James Muirhead.) In 1765, Small had arrived in Birmingham with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. Shortly thereafter, he became family physician to Boulton, at that time a successful 37-year-old silversmith who was busily realizing his great ambition: to make his name “known all over the world as the hallmark of excellent and artistic workmanship” in metals. Small, a native of Scotland, had already made his mark on America by having taught Jefferson at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Many years later, Jefferson would recall that “what probably fixed the destinies of my life” was that Small “made me his daily companion” and “from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science & of the system of things in which we are placed.” High tribute indeed, from a man who would himself greatly affect “the system of things in which we are placed.” But by 1764, Small had tired of academic life (especially the bickering with his faculty colleagues in Williamsburg who considered him an outrageous radical for lecturing in English rather than Latin!). Thus he returned to Britain and took up his medical practice in Birmingham.

Some months thereafter, Dr. Small entertained a visiting fellow Scot, James Watt. At that time, Watt was eking out a living as a poorly paid instrument maker for the University of Glasgow, his income supplemented by surveying and minor engineering jobs on canals and at coal mines. Despite all that activity, his income was not enough to cover the expenses of his experiments with steam engines. By 1765 Watt had worked out all the “central ideas to be incorporated in his various steam engines for the remainder of his life.” (See Robert Schofield, The Lunar Society of Birmingham [Oxford University Press, 1962].) But between the financial needs of his family and “the villainous bad workmanship” of Scottish artisans, he had not been able to produce a successful working engine. In order to keep going, be had sold production and distribution rights to an ironworks and mining tycoon, John Roebuck, who thus had control of Watt’s destiny.

During Watt’s Birmingham visit, Small took him to visit Boulton’s metalworking shops. Watt recognized that Boulton’s plant, tools, and especially his workmen were just what was needed to produce steam engines. On a second visit a year later he met Boulton himself, and the two men instantly liked each other. Naturally enough, then, discussion immediately turned to the possibility of establishing a partnership with Boulton and Roebuck, which would allow Watt to move to Birmingham to continue his experiments and testing, and to initiate production of engines. Those negotiations dragged on for eight years and took several strange turns, including the collapse and bankruptcy of Roebuck, who sold all his rights to Boulton. Thus, when Watt finally moved to Birmingham in 1775, it was to create the firm of Boulton & Watt, one of the greatest companies of the early Industrial Revolution.

During the long years of negotiations, Small was a crucial figure. He saw the enormous profit potential of Watt’s designs combined with Boulton’s high-quality workshops, and he hoped to invest in the new firm himself. He thus took on the task of keeping alive Watt’s interest in moving to Birmingham. This was no easy job, because Watt was not a naturally ebullient personality. Indeed, he seems to have been inclined to hypochondria, suffered severely from headaches, and was often despondent over his money problems and other setbacks, including the death of his wife.

“Global Cooling”

Small’s voluminous correspondence helped Watt’s morale in several ways. First, Small constantly encouraged Watt to continue development of his steam engine, regardless of what was happening on the financial and organizational side of the negotiations. Second, Small gave moral support to the whole array of engineering odd jobs that Watt was compelled to undertake to stave off bankruptcy. Third and perhaps most important, Small kept up a flow of other stimulating ideas across the entire scientific spectrum, which helped Watt to forget his troubles. The discussion of global cooling was in fact initiated in an exchange of letters reviewing a canal-surveying project that Watt had undertaken (as usual, to raise a little extra income).

Watt had been surveying in the Highlands of Scotland for a canal project near Loch Oich in the Great Glen above Inverness, where the Caledonian Canal was later built. It was an area from which many were emigrating to America. The purpose of the proposed canal was to connect the east coast of Scotland (where there were manufacturing shops) with its west coast, thus shortening the shipping time to American markets. Watt wrote to Small, “I had a miserable journey home, through the wildest country I ever saw, and the worst conducted roads . . . [I]ncessant rain kept me for three days as wet as water could make me. I could hardly preserve my joumal-book.”

Small, on October 27, 1773, replied, “I do not wonder the people migrate from the country you have described to America.” Then, in what was apparently his style of raising interesting thoughts out of Watt’s gloom, he went on, “Pray, have not all these mountains formerly been forests, and why does not timber now grow upon them, as they are not cultivated?” Contrasting those barren hills of Scotland with the lush environment of his New World sojourn, he continued, “Nothing but incessant cultivation can hinder any spot in America, from latitude 50 southwards, from producing trees.” Latitude 50 runs through northern Newfoundland and central Quebec. Scotland is at a higher latitude, but Small believed that its highland hills had once supported trees and no longer did so. The hills, he reasoned, must have become barren and treeless due to a southward spread of cold climate.

Small summarized: “I am led by this and many other reasons to suppose, nay to believe, that the frozen space of the Globe is annually increased at the rate of about the 300th part of a degree of latitude . . . so that after a certain number of years all Europe, and finally the whole surface of this earth, will be frozen, as the Moon is now and has long been.” Quick-witted and ingenious as he was, Small had a scheme to deal with this horrifying prospect, namely, a “project for producing perpetual summer,” which he outlined for Watt. The central feature was to use gunpowder to blow up the polar ice, thus creating icebergs, which could be towed to the tropics. There the icebergs would serve as air-conditioning units, rendering the tropics more temperate and habitable. Simultaneously, of course, the removal of ice from the arctic would slow the southerly spread of the freeze that threatened to cover all Europe and finally the whole earth.

Small’s next words give us a glimpse of his views on the political institutions of his day, especially monarchy, and are interesting in light of Jefferson’s connection with Small. “I will be bold to say, that if all the gunpowder which has been spent by their Imperial and Royal Majesties the Emperors and Empresses of Constantinople, Germany and Russia, the Kings of France, Spain, Britain and Prussia, within these last twenty years, had been laid out upon it [his iceberg project], the powder would have produced at least as much benefit to every one of them as it has done by being expended on their own schemes. I have had thoughts of writing a circular letter to these potentates, and if you give me any encouragement, notwithstanding my laziness, I will still do it, although there is but little to be made of kingly heads, I fear.”

Apparently, Watt did not encourage him, since we hear nothing further of the project for producing “perpetual summer” before Small’s untimely death. He died in February 1775, a little more than a year after this exchange of letters and a little more than a year before his student Jefferson had some equally scathing things to say about a certain European monarch.

The Botanic Garden

However, the idea survived, as we know from The Botanic Garden, a book-length didactic poem in several cantos by Erasmus Darwin, another member of the Lunar Society. Darwin began work on this, his masterpiece, in 1777 and published it in 1789 to enormous popular success. (A 1798 American edition was produced by T. & J. Swords, Printers to the Faculty of Physic of Columbia College, New York.) Darwin started out to summarize the current state of botany, but ended up by having “versified all of science and technology too,” in the words of Robert Schofield, a leading authority on the Lunar Society. How a project for moving icebergs makes its way into a poem on botany is indicated by the “advertisement” (or preface) to the London edition. The reader is told that “the physiology of Plants is delivered” in the first canto, called The Economy of Vegetation, including “the operation of the Elements as far as they may be supposed to affect the growth of Vegetables.” Darwin organized his poetic lines on the varous “Elements”-heat, rain, snow, sunshine, as well as ice-under various constellations of stars. When he got to the “Northern constellations” in Section XI of the first canto, he versified about “Ice islands navigated into the Tropic Seas” by legions of nymphs:

There, Nymphs! alight, array your dazzling powers,

With sudden march alarm the torpid Hours;

On ice-built isles expand a thousand sails,

Hinge the strong helms, and catch the frozen gales;

The winged rocks to feverish climates guide,

Where fainting Zephyrs pant upon the tide;

While swarthy nations croud the sultry coast,

Drink the fresh breeze and hail the floating Frost,

Nymphs! veil’d in mist, the melting treasures steer,

And cool, with arctic snows, the tropic year.

While Darwin assigned the project to Nymphs and Zephyrs in the poem, he shows in his footnotes that the best minds of his era were thinking about both global cooling and practical schemes to forestall it. In a very long “philosophical footnote” to the above passage, Darwin says that visitors to the north provided evidence that the “islands of ice” steadily grow and that the winds passing over them deliver cold temperatures to points south. “[W]e cannot doubt that the northern ice is the principal source of the coldness of our winters . . . ” Darwin wrote. “Hence the increase of the ice in the polar regions, by increasing the cold of our climate, adds, at the same time, to the bulk of the Glaciers of Italy and Switzerland.”

Small would no doubt have been delighted to learn that his ideas were still being investigated, and particularly pleased that his project for correcting the problem was garnering worldwide attention through the popularity of Darwin’s poem. Darwin even echoed Small’s lament about how the resources wasted on war could have been used to cool the tropics and warm the northem reaches.

The great firm of Watt & Boulton became much too busy in the next few years making steam engines to pursue the “iceberg removal” project. The idea of moving icebergs to achieve various human objectives still comes up from time to time: to irrigate the vegetable gardens of California or to provide more drinking water to Los Angeles. But so far as modifying the climate is concerned, our preoccupations have reversed in the past two centuries: from global cooling in the late 1700s to global warming in the late 1900s. Some scientists tell us that the problem is not that the masses of ice have become too enormous—but that they may well be melting too fast due to the accumulations of greenhouse gas!

Darwin might have been surprised.