The real Dr Frankenstein

Andrew Crosse (June 17, 1784 – July 6, 1855) was a British amateur scientist who was born and died at Fyne Court, Broomfield, Somerset. Crosse was an early pioneer and experimenter in the use of electricity and one of the last of the ‘gentlemen scientists’. He became widely known and somewhat notorious after press reporting of a 1836 electrocrystallization experiment during which insects ‘appeared’.

Scientific research

Having lost his parents – his father in 1800 and mother in 1805 – at the age of 21 Crosse took over the management of the family estates. After abandoning his studies for the bar, Crosse devoted his spare time increasingly to studying electricity at Fyne Court, where he developed his own laboratory. He also studied mineralogy and became interested in the formation of crystalline deposits in caves. Around 1807 Crosse married his interests together and started to experiment with electrocrystallization, forming crystalline lime carbonate from water taken from Holwell Cavern. He returned to the subject again from around 1817 and in subsequent years produced a total of 24 electrocrystallized minerals.

Among his experiments Crosse erected ‘an extensive apparatus for examining the electricity of the atmosphere’ incorporating, at one point, an insulated wire some 1.25 miles (2 km) long, later shortened to 1,800 feet (549m), suspended from poles and trees. Using this he was able to determine the polarity of the atmosphere under various weather conditions, with his results being published by his friend George Singer in 1814 as part of Singers Elements of Electricity and Electro-Chemistry.

Along with Sir Humphry Davy (who later visited Fyne Court in 1827), Crosse was one of the first to develop large voltaic piles. Although it was not the largest he built, Henry Minchin Noad’s Manual of Electricity describes a battery consisting of 50 jars containing 73 square feet (6.8 m2) of coated surface. Using his wires he was able to charge and discharge it some 20 times a minute, ‘accompanied by reports almost as loud as those of a cannon’. Due to such experiments he became known locally as ‘the thunder and lightning man’. In 1836 Sir Richard Phillips described seeing a wide variety of voltaic piles at Fyne Court totalling 2,500, of which 1,500 were in use when he visited.

Although little of his work had been published and Crosse had largely studied for his own interest, in 1836 he was persuaded to attend a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Bristol. After describing his discoveries over dinner at the house of a friend in Bristol, he was further persuaded to recount them to both the chemical and geological sections of the meeting, where they proved to be of great interest. These included his electrocrystallization and atmospheric experiments, and his improvements to the voltaic battery.

Crosse went on to successfully separate copper from its ores using electrolysis, experimented with the electrolysis of sea water, wine and brandy to purify them, and examined the effect of electricity on vegetation, and researched various other areas of interest. He was also interested in the practical uses of electricity and magnetism, including the development of loudspeakers and telegraphy although he did not research these areas himself.

Controversy

A few months after the 1836 Bristol meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Crosse had been conducting another electrocrystallization experiment when, on the 26th day of the experiment he saw what he described as “the perfect insect, standing erect on a few bristles which formed its tail.” More creatures appeared and two days later they moved their legs. Over the next few weeks, hundreds more appeared. They crawled around the table and hid themselves when they could find a shelter. Crosse identified them as being part of genus acarus.

Puzzled by the results, Crosse mentioned the incident to a couple of friends. He also sent the results to the London Electrical Society. A local newspaper learned of the incident and published an article about the “extraordinary experiment” and named the insects Acarus crossii. The article was subsequently picked up elsewhere across the country and in Europe. Some of the readers apparently gained the impression that Crosse had somehow “created” the insects or at least claimed to have done so. He received angry letters in which he was accused of blasphemy and trying to take God’s place as a creator. Some of them included death threats. Local farmers blamed him for the blight of the wheat crop and commissioned an exorcism in the nearby hills. Opposition to Crosse was so fanatical and visceral that he had to withdraw to the solitude of his mansion Fyne Court.

Other scientists tried to repeat the experiment. W. H. Weeks took extensive measures to assure a sealed environment for his experiment by placing it inside a bell jar. He obtained the same results as Crosse, but due to the controversy that Crosse’s experiment had sparked his work was never published. In February 1837 many newspapers reported that Michael Faraday had also replicated Crosse’s results. However, this was not true. Faraday had not even attempted the experiment. Later researchers, such as Henry Noad and Alfred Smee, were unable to replicate Crosse’s results. Crosse did not claim that he created the insects; he instead assumed that there were embedded insect eggs in his samples. Later commentators agreed that the insects were probably cheese or dust mites that had contaminated Crosse’s instruments.

It has been suggested that this episode was the inspiration for Frankenstein, although this could not have been the case since Crosse’s controversial experiments took place almost 20 years after the novel’s publication. The idea appears to have originated in the 1979 book The Man Who Was Frankenstein by Peter Haining. Mary Shelley did, however, know Crosse, through a common friend, the poet Robert Southey. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin attended a lecture by Crosse in December 1814 in London, in which he explained his experiments with atmospheric electricity. Edward W. Cox wrote a report of their visits to Fyne Court to see Crosse’s work in the Taunton Courier in Autumn 1836.

Andrew Crosse, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Andrew_Crosse&oldid=400932264 (last visited Jan. 15, 2011).

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