Erasmus Darwin

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Erasmus Darwin in 1770

Erasmus Darwin (12 December 173118 April 1802) was an English physician, natural philosopher, physiologist, inventor and poet. He was one of the founder members of the Lunar Society, a discussion group of pioneering industrialists and natural philosophers. He was a member of the Darwin — Wedgwood family, which most famously includes his grandson, Charles Darwin.


  • I have got a most exquisitely fine Balance, and a very neat Glass Box, and have all this day been employ'd in twisting the Necks of Florence Flasks—in vain! ...I beg will procure me one of their necks to be twisted into a little Hook according to the... the reverse of this Paper: It must be truly hermetically seal'd, air-tight ...I intend to foretell every Shower... and make great medical discovery as far as relates to the Specific Gravity of Air: and from the Quantity of Vapor.—Thus the Specific Gravity of Air, should be as the Absolute Gravity (shew'd by the Barometer) and as the Heat (shew'd by Boulton's thermometer). Now if it is not always found as these two (that is as one and inversely as the other) then the deviations at different Times must be as the Quantity of dissolved Vapour in the Air. The common Hygrometers only shew when the Air is in a Disposition to receive or part with moisture, not at all the Quantity it contains.
  • 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.
  • Soon shall thy arm, unconquer’d steam! afar
    Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
    Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear
    The flying chariot through the field of air.
  • No radiant pearl which crested Fortune wears,
    No gem that twinkling hangs from Beauty’s ears,
    Not the bright stars which Night’s blue arch adorn,
    Nor rising suns that gild the vernal morn,
    Shine with such lustre as the tear that flows
    Down Virtue’s manly cheek for others’ woes.
  • Would it be too bold to imagine that, in the great length of time since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind would it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions and associations, and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down these improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!
  • For if we may compare infinities, it would seem to require a greater infinity of power to cause the causes of effects, than to cause the effects themselves. This idea is analogous to the improving excellence observable in every part of the creation; such as in the progressive increase of the solid or habitable parts of the earth from water; and in the progressive increase of the wisdom and happiness of its inhabitants; and is consonant to the idea of our present situation being a state of probation, which by our exertion we may improve, and are consequently responsible for our actions.
Horizontal Windmill invented by Erasmus Darwin in 1768 & completed at Josiah Wedgewood's pottery manufactory at Etruria in 1779. Phytologia (1800) Plate VII, Sect. XI.3.6.
  • It consists of a windmill sail placed horizontally like that of a smoak-jack, surrounded by an octagon tower... [U]pright pillars are connected together by oblique horizontal boards... at an angle of about 45 degrees... so as to form a complete octagon including the horizontal windmill sail near the top... [T]he wind as it strikes... from whatever quarter it comes, is bent upwards and then strikes against the horizontal wind-sail. These horizontal boards... may... be made to turn upon an axis a little below their centres of gravity, so as to close themselves on that side of the octagon tower most distant from the wind. ...[I]t was found on many trials by Mr. Edgeworth... and by myself, that the wind by being thus reverted upwards by a fixed planed board did not seem to lose any of its power. And as the height of the tower may be made twice as great as the diameter of the sail, there is reason to conclude that the power of this horizontal wind-sail may be considerably greater, than if the same sail was placed nearly vertically...
  • Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
    Was born and nurs'd in ocean's pearly caves;
    First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
    Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
    These, as successive generations bloom,
    New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
    Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
    And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.

Quotes about Erasmus Darwin[edit]

  • Darwin was also experimenting with gases and asked Boulton to make him a flask with a twisted neck. ...he hoped to elucidate the properties of air... In modern jargon, Darwin is saying that the density, ρ, of the air should be proportional to the pressure, p, and inversely proportional to the temperature T. In symbols, this gives ρ = constant ✕ p/T, which is precisely the ideal gas law, now written p/ρ = RT, where R is constant and T is the absolute temperature. This was in 1763, 30 years before the law’s official discovery, and is a good example of his insight in physical science. On this occasion it is thrown off in a letter, not a formal paper

  • He too renounces his Creator,
    And forms all sense from senseless matter.
    Great wizard he! by magic spells
    Can all things raise from cockle shells...
    O Doctor, change thy foolish motto,
    Or keep it for some lady’s grotto.
    Else thy poor patients well may quake,
    If thou no more canst mend than make.
  • Dr Darwin, late of Derby, was a mixed character, illustrious by talent, professionally generous, always hospitable, kind, and charitable to the poor, sometimes friendly, but never amiable. While on abstracted themes his imagination glowed; while on entrance, and on a commencing conversation, his countenance wore a benevolent smile, we invariably found, on its progress, a cold satiric atmosphere around him, repulsing all attempts to interchange the softer sympathies of friendship. Age did not improve his heart, and, on its inherent coldness, poetic authorism, commencing with him after middle-life, engrafted all its irritability, disingenuous arts, and grudging jealousy of others' reputation. As a poet, his genius was luxuriant, yet vigorous, but his taste was fastidious respecting polish, and meritricious in the desire of ornament. As affection was the desideratum of his temperament, so is simplicity that of his verse, so was irreligion that of his judgment. The warm defender of public liberty, he exerted despotism, by resistless sarcasm towards those in mature life, over whom he had natural or acquired powers.
    Biography has very seldom characteristic truth, because it is generally manufactured by near relations, or by obliged and partial friends, or by editors, who consider it highly conducive to their own profits on the work, that the author whose writings they publish or republish, should, as a private character, possess the unqualified esteem and admiration of their readers; and they do for him what Queen Elizabeth requested her painters to do for her, they draw a picture without shades.
  • The late Dr Darwin's family seem dissatisfied with my impartiality. I see they wanted to have had only the lights in his character shewn, and all its shades omitted. On the contrary, several of my friends murmur that I have not... sufficiently stigmatized his irreligion; at least his long insinuated contempt of revelation, and of what appeared to him the improbability of the mediatorial sacrifice. Others are chagrined that my father's satirically-playful epigram found no place in the memoirs of Dr Darwin. You have probably seen it. Its subject was the motto he inscribed on his family-arms, which are three scollop-shells. Omnía e conchis [All from shells], allusive to his favourite hypothesis. On his chaise, in the year 1770, he painted the arms thus inscribed. Soon after my father wrote and sent him the epigram. ...[Erasmus Darwin] painted his chaise afresh, omitted the arms and their motto, and substituted his cypher. Though my father never published the lines, the sin of having written them was never forgiven by him ...Friends til that hour, Dr Darwin never afterwards mentioned my father with respect.
    As to the Memoirs, neither party, whose complaints are so opposite, have taught me to repent that I endeavoured to poise the agitated scales of characteristic opinion and of criticism, with an even hand, while I respected the feelings of Dr R. Darwin too much to lash with acrimony that unfortunate and fastidious proneness to scepticism, which iced his affections, and bewildered his great and noble understanding, in the blind mazes of metaphysic conjecture.

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