Crosse, Andrew (17841855)
British amateur scientist and early experimenter with electricity,
who may have been the model for Mary Shelleys creation
of the main character in her novel, Frankenstein. In addition
to his remarkable experiments in collecting atmospheric
electricity in his laboratory, Crosse aroused fierce controversy
through reports that he had spontaneously generated insect
life through electrochemical experiments.
Crosse was born on June 17, 1784, at Fyne Court, Broomfield,
Somersetshire, England. Fyne Court was the ancestral
home of his family, whose forbears were granted a coat of arms
in the seventeenth century. In 1793 he attended Dr. Seyers
School, Bristol, where he took a great interest in natural science
and the developing study of electricity. His father was a friend
of both Benjamin Franklin (17061790) and the scientist Joseph
Priestley (17331804). In 1802 Crosse continued his education
at Brasenose College, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner.
He was not happy there, finding many of the students
foolish and intemperate and the tutors unsatisfactory.
In 1805 the death of his mother left him an orphan; he had
already lost his father, sister, uncle, and two of his best friends.
He retired to a solitary life at Fyne Court, where he continued
to study electricity, chemistry, and mineralogy. He became
friendly with George Singer, who was then compiling his book
Elements of Electricity and Electro-Chemistry, published in 1814.
Starting in 1807, Crosse experimented in the formation of crystals
through the action of electrical currents. The stimulus for
this research was study of the formation of stalactites and stalagmites
in Holywell Cavern at Broomfield. Crosse took some
water from the cavern and connected it to the poles of a voltaic
battery. After ten days, he observed the formation of crystals.
This was the forerunner of a development 30 years later when
he claimed to have observed the formation of insect life
Crosse married Mary Anne Hamilton in 1809, and over the
next ten years they had seven children, three of whom died in
childbirth. In 1817 Crosses friend Singer also died, three years
after publication of his book on electricity. Crosse became increasingly
reclusive and devoted himself to his scientific research.
He erected a mile and a quarter of copper wires on
poles at Fyne Court, connected to his electrical room, where
he experimented on the amount and nature of electricity in the
atmosphere. He was regarded with awe by the local residents,
who named him the thunder and lightning man and the
Wizard of the Quantocks (the nearby Quantock Hills).
Crosse was linked with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his
young mistress Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later author of
the novel Frankenstein) after they attended a lecture by Crosse
in December 1814 in London, in which he explained his experiments
with atmospheric electricity.
An account of a visit to Fyne Court by Edward W. Cox published
in the Taunton Courier in Autumn 1836 reads like a description
of a Hollywood film set for a Frankenstein film
But to proceed now into the penetralia of the mansion, the
philosophical room, which is about sixty feet in length and upwards
of twenty in height, with an arched roofit was built
originally as a music halland what wonderful things you will
see . . . a great many rows of gallipots and jars, with some bits
of metal, and wires passing from them into saucers containing
some dirty-looking crystals. . . . It was the invention of a battery
by which the stream of the electric fluid could be maintained
without flagging, not for hours only, but for days, weeks, years,
that was the foundation of some of Mr. Crosses most remarkable
discoveries. . . . Crystals of all kinds, many of them never
made before by human skill, are in progress. . . . But you are
startled in the midst of your observations, by the smart crackling
sound that attends the passage of the electrical spark; you
hear also the rumbling of distant thunder. The rain is already
splashing in great drops against the glass, and the sound of the
passing sparks continues to startle your ear. Your host is in high
glee, for a battery of electricity is about to come within his reach
a thousandfold more powerful than all those in the room
strung together. You follow his hasty steps to the organ gallery,
and curiously approach the spot whence the noise proceeds
that has attracted your notice. You see at the window a huge
brass conductor, with a discharging rod near it passing into the
floor, and from the one knob to the other, sparks are leaping
with increasing rapidity and noise, rap, rap, rapbang, bang,
bang; you are afraid to approach near this terrible engine, and
well you may; for every spark that passes would kill twenty men
at one blow, if they were linked together hand in hand, and the
spark sent through the circle. Almost trembling, you note that
from this conductor wires pass off without the window, and the
electric fluid is conducted harmlessly away. On the instrument
itself is inscribed in large letters the warning words,
Noli me tangere. (Do not touch me)
Nevertheless, your host does not fear. He approaches as
boldly as if the flowing stream of fire were a harmless spark.
Armed with his insulated rod, he plays with the mighty power;
he directs it where he will; he sends it into his batteries having
charged them thus, he shows you how wire is melted, dissipated
in a moment, by its passage; how metalssilver, gold and tin
are inflamed, and burn like paper, only with most brilliant
hues. He shows you a mimic aurora, and a falling star, and so
proves to you the cause of those beautiful phenomena; and
then he tells you, that the wires you had noticed, as passing
from tree to tree round the grounds, were connected with the
conductor before you; that they collected the electricity of the
atmosphere as it floated by, and brought it into the room in the
shape of the sparks that you had witnessed with such awe.
Crosses work on electrocrystallization appears to have anticipated
that of A. C. Becquerel (17881878). Although Crosse
did not disclose his discoveries to the British Association until
1836, he had been working on the subject before 1820. His fascination
with the power of electricity and magnetism dated
from early life, and as early as 1816, at a party of local residents,
had exclaimed, I prophesy that, by means of the electric agenEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. Crosse, Andrew
cy, we shall be enabled to communicate our thoughts instantaneously
with the uttermost ends of the earth.
In 1837 Crosse was working on electrocrystallization experiments
when he observed tiny insects in metallic solutions believed
to be fatal to life. Crosse made no formal report at the
time, but confided his observations to an acquaintance, who
spread the newslater featured in an unauthorized newspaper
report, that Crosse had claimed to create life. Crosse was reviled
all over England and Europe as a blasphemer for daring
to usurp divine creative powers.
The appearance of the insects of the genus acarus (mites),
under conditions which seemed to preclude contamination of
the solutions, has remained one of the anomalies of science,
and was a forerunner of the spontaneous generation controversies
of Béchamp and Pasteur. At the height of the Crosse uproar,
Faraday stated that he had noted similar appearances, although
he was reluctant to ascribe them to production or
revivification. An amateur experimenter named W. H. Weeks,
of Sandwich, Kent, also repeated Crosses experiments under
stringent conditions and reported that the insects appeared.
Crosse reported his findings in the Transactions of the London
Electrical Society (1838) and in the Annals of Electricity (October
1836October 1837). Years later, in a letter to the writer
Harriet Martineau dated August 12, 1849, he summarized
these findings as follows
In a great number of my experiments, made by passing a
long current of electricity through various fluids (and some of
them were considered to be destructive to animal life), acari
have made their appearance; but never excepting on an electrified
surface kept constantly moistened, or beneath the surface
of an electrified fluid. In some instances these little animals
have been produced two inches below the surface of a poisonous
liquid. . . . Their first appearance consists in a very minute
whitish hemisphere, formed upon the surface of the electrified
body, sometimes at the positive end, and sometimes at the negative,
and occasionally between the two, or in the middle of the
electrified current; and sometimes upon all. . . . Then commences
the first filaments, they immediately shrink up and collapse
like zoophytes upon moss, but expand again some time
after the removal of the point. Some days afterwards these filaments
become legs and bristles, and a perfect acarus is the result,
which finally detaches itself from its birth-place, and if
under a fluid, climbs up the electrical wire, and escapes from
the vessel, and afterwards feeds either on the moisture or the
outside of the vessel, or on paper or card, or other substance
in its vicinity.
Crosse was also aware of the possibility that apparent insect
formations might have been mineral crystallizations that have
a strong resemblance to animal form. Such osmostic growths
were investigated by Dr. Stéphane Leduc of Nantes, in the
twentieth century. Leduc demonstrated that artificial structures
formed in crystalloid solutions imitate the appearance
and some of the properties of organic life. Leducs experiments
revived the concept of spontaneous generation in an evolutionary
theory of life.
Andrew Crosse was hurt by the hostility that his experiments
aroused, since he had never sought publicity or made any
claims beyond the facts as he observed them. As he explained
in his letter to Martineau
As to the appearance of the acari under long-continued
electrical action, I have never in thought, word, or deed, given
any one a right to suppose that I considered them as a creation,
or even as a formation, from inorganic matter. To create is to
form a something out of a nothing. To annihilate, is to reduce
that something to a nothing. Both of these, of course, can only
be the attributes of the Almighty. In fact, I can assure you most
sacredly that I have never dreamed of any theory sufficient to
account for their appearance. I confess that I was not a little
surprised, and am so still, and quite as much as I was when the
acari made their appearance. Again, I have never claimed any
merit as attached to these experiments. It was a matter of
chance. I was looking for silicious formations, and animal matter
appeared instead. . . .
In addition to the unwelcome notoriety caused by this controversy,
Crosses wife and brother died in January 1846. He
continued his experiments at Fyne Court, although he lived
more like a recluse than ever.
However, on July 22, 1850, he married for the second time.
His new wife was Cornelia Burns, who took a great interest in
his experiments and assisted him with great competence.
Crosse also researched a mode of extracting metals from their
ores and methods of purification of sea water and other fluids
by electricity. He contributed a paper, On the Perforation of
Non-conducting Substances by the Mechanical Action of the
Electric Fluid, and also investigated the connection between
the growth of vegetation and electric influence. In 1854 he gave
a paper to the British Association meeting at Liverpool, On
the Apparent Mechanical Action accompanying Electric Transfer.
He died at Fyne Court on July 6, 1855. In her Memorials . . .
of Andrew Crosse, the Electrician (1857), his widow published details
of the life and work of Crosse and included a selection of
poems written by him.
[Crosse, Cornelia A. H.] Memorials, Scientific and Literary, of
Andrew Crosse, the Electrician. London Longman, 1857.
Gould, Rupert T. Oddities A Book of Unexplained Facts. London,
1928. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y. University Books,
Haining, Peter. The Man Who Was Frankenstein. London
Frederick Muller, 1979.
Leduc, Dr. Stéphane. Théorie Physicochimique de la Vie et Générations
Spontanées. Translated as The Mechanism of Life. London
William Heinemann, 1911.
Crosse, Andrew (17841855)