George Berg (ca. 1720–1775) was a London-based musician—organist at the London church of St. Mary at Hill, teacher of violin and harpsichord, and composer of instrumental and vocal music. When remembered today, it is for his collections of songs, especially those he wrote for entertainments performed at the Ranelagh and Spring Gardens and other pleasure gardens (entertainment complexes) in London. Berg was a professional member of the Gentlemen and Noblemen’s Catch Club and of the Royal Society of Musicians as well. But Berg’s professional life is of little importance here: This is a paper about a personal interest that he sustained, its foundations, its inspiration, and its consequences.
For at least fifteen years, Berg engaged in a project to learn chemistry, specifically chemistry related to glassmaking and especially glasses used to make fake gemstones or enamel colors. He kept records of the project, copying his formulas, often with comments about the results, into an experiment book. Berg also transcribed relevant portions of chemistry texts and recorded his conversations with others about these and related subjects.
Berg’s experiment book chronicles his efforts to learn both chemical theories and glassmaking techniques. It provides extraordinary access to information about what Berg did and how he did it. What we do not fully understand is why. Was Berg interested in a contribution to public knowledge, personal intellectual satisfaction, an income, or something else entirely? We know that Berg solicited information from others as he worked to improve his products. What was the value of these social networks to his endeavor? Why did artisan glassmakers, enamelers, and goldsmiths advise and encourage Berg? What was his relationship with other experimental gentlemen who worked to understand or improve glassmaking? Answers to such questions are critical to better understanding Berg’s project. And, if Berg is a typical eighteenth-century gentleman, one eager to benefit himself while improving the world in which he lives, then these answers may suggest typical concerns, approaches, and capabilities.
This paper has five parts. In the next part, I describe the contents of George Berg’s Experiment Book. I then discuss Berg’s project, beginning with a brief description of glassmaking and related chemistry in the eighteenth century. This part also includes a discussion of print and human resources available to George Berg. The fourth part outlines the social relationships on which Berg relied and, in particular, his relationship to the Society of Arts (as the Royal Society of Arts was often called at the time). In the final section, I consider the consequences and broader meanings of Berg’s project and of similar endeavors.