Erasmus Darwin

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Erasmus Darwin : biography

12 December 1731 – 18 April 1802

In 1775, Darwin met Elizabeth Pole, daughter of Charles Colyear, 2nd Earl of Portmore, and wife of Colonel Edward Pole (1718–1780); but as she was married, Darwin could only make his feelings known for her through poetry. When Edward Pole died, Darwin married Elizabeth and moved to her home, Radbourne Hall, four miles (6 km) west of Derby. The hall and village are these days known as Radbourne. In 1782, they moved to Full Street, Derby. They had four sons, one of whom died in infancy, and three daughters:

  • Edward Darwin (1782–1829)
  • Frances Ann Violetta Darwin (1783–1874), married Samuel Tertius Galton, was the mother of Francis Galton
  • Emma Georgina Elizabeth Darwin (1784–1818)
  • Sir Francis Sacheverel Darwin (1786–1859)
  • John Darwin (1787–1818)
  • Henry Darwin (1789–1790), died in infancy.
  • Harriet Darwin (1790–1825), married Admiral Thomas James Maling

Death

Darwin died suddenly on 18 April 1802, weeks after having moved to Breadsall Priory, just north of Derby. His body is buried in All Saints Church, Breadsall.

Erasmus Darwin is commemorated on one of the Moonstones, a series of monuments in Birmingham.

Other activities

In addition to the Lunar Society, Erasmus Darwin belonged to the influential Derby Philosophical Society, as did his brother-in-law Samuel Fox (see family tree below). He experimented with the use of air and gases to alleviate infections and cancers in patients. A Pneumatic Institution was established at Clifton in 1799 for clinically testing these ideas. He conducted research into the formation of clouds, on which he published in 1788. He also inspired Robert Weldon’s Somerset Coal Canal caisson lock.

Darwin’s experiments in galvanism were an important source of inspiration for Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.

Cosmological speculation

Contemporary literature dates the cosmological theories of the Big Bang and Big Crunch to the 19th and 20th centuries. However Erasmus Darwin had speculated on these sorts of events in The Botanic Garden, A Poem in Two Parts: Part 1, The Economy of Vegetation, 1791:

Roll on, ye Stars! exult in youthful prime,Mark with bright curves the printless steps of Time;Near and more near your beamy cars approach,And lessening orbs on lessening orbs encroach; —Flowers of the sky! ye too to age must yield,Frail as your silken sisters of the field!Star after star from Heaven’s high arch shall rush,Suns sink on suns, and systems systems crush,Headlong, extinct, to one dark center fall,And Death and Night and Chaos mingle all!— Till o’er the wreck, emerging from the storm,Immortal Nature lifts her changeful form,Mounts from her funeral pyre on wings of flame,And soars and shines, another and the same.

Inventions

Darwin was the inventor of several devices, though he did not patent any. He believed this would damage his reputation as a doctor, and encouraged his friends to patent their own modifications of his designs.

  • A horizontal windmill, which he designed for Josiah Wedgwood (who would be Charles Darwin’s other grandfather, see family tree below).
  • A carriage that would not tip over (1766).
  • A steering mechanism for his carriage that would be adopted by cars 130 years later (1759).
  • A speaking machine (at Clifton in 1799).
  • A canal lift for barges.
  • A minute artificial bird.
  • A copying machine (1778).
  • A variety of weather monitoring machines.
  • An artesian well (1783).

Rocket engine

In notes dating to 1779, Darwin made a sketch of a simple hydrogen-oxygen rocket engine, with gas tanks connected by plumbing and pumps to an elongated combustion chamber and expansion nozzle, a concept not to be seen again until one century later.

Major publications

  • Erasmus Darwin, A Botanical Society at Lichfield. A System of Vegetables, according to their classes, orders… translated from the 13th edition of Linnaeus’ Systema Vegetabiliium. 2 vols., 1783, Lichfield, J. Jackson, for Leigh and Sotheby, London.
  • Erasmus Darwin, A Botanical Society at Lichfield. The Families of Plants with their natural characters…Translated from the last edition of Linnaeus’ Genera Plantarum. 1787, Lichfield, J. Jackson, for J. Johnson, London.
  • Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden, Part I, The Economy of Vegetation. 1791 London, J. Johnson.
  • Part II, The Loves of the Plants. 1789, London, J. Johnson.
  • Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia; or, The Laws of Organic Life, 1794, Part I. London, J. Johnson,
  • Part I-III. 1796, London, J. Johnson.
  • Darwin, Erasmus 1797. A plan for the conduct of female education in boarding schools. J. Johnson, Derby. 4to, 128 pages; last two leaves contain a book list, an apology for the work, and an advert for "Miss Parkers School".
  • Erasmus Darwin, Phytologia; or, The Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening. 1800, London, J. Johnson.
  • Erasmus Darwin, The Temple of Nature; or, The Origin of Society. 1803, London, J. Johnson.