The 18th Century Internet

450554697_2969102f45 I just finished reading Tim Walker’s The Social Media Are Not So New, which draws some interesting parallels between modern social media and the changes in communication models that were at the heart of the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe. In particular, he looks at technologies that enabled “narrowcasting”, i.e., inexpensive one-to-small-group communications. He also defies the Marshall McLuhan concept that “the medium is the message”, showing how in social media, the message frequently jumps across different media. A fascinating read – highly recommended.

In The Virtual Handshake, we open the book with a look at another historical parallel to social media – The Lunar Society:

In 1765, a small group of businessmen/inventors in Birmingham, England, formed a discussion group. They called it the Lunar Society, because they met every four weeks during the full moon so they could see their way home following their late-night discussions. The Lunar Society’s distinguished membership included James Watt, inventor of the modern steam engine, and Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the Wedgwood china company. Other members were some of the most renowned inventors, manufacturers, scientists, engineers, and physicians of the day. Their personal interests varied, but they came together to talk with other equally learned and creative men. Initially, they discussed the application of technology to business, but their conversations quickly expanded to include science, literature, philosophy, and politics. Some historians credit this group with helping to launch the Industrial Revolution.

The Lunar Society also routinely invited visiting businessmen, dignitaries, and politicians to attend meetings. As founding members moved away from Birmingham, they continued to participate through mail. So did many of their visitors, including such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Although the core group was founded in Birmingham, the members quickly learned the value of continuing their dialogue between meetings and in extending their reach beyond their local community. Never larger than fourteen members, approximately half attended any one meeting. However, the volumes of letters they wrote to each other-predecessors of e-mail-carried the conversation beyond the walls of their meeting place.

You can learn more about The Lunar Society at: