Crosse, Andrew (1784-1855)

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Crosse, Andrew (1784-1855)

British amateur scientist and early experimenter with electricity, who may have been the model for Mary Shelley's 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, Broom-field, 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. Seyer's 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 (1706-1790) and the scientist Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). 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 through electrocrystallization.

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 Crosse's friend Singer also died, three years after publication of his book on electricity. Crosse became increasingly reclusive and devoted himself to his scientific re-search. 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. Crosse's 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."

Crosse's work on electrocrystallization appears to have anticipated that of A. C. Becquerel (1788-1878). 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 agency, 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 Crosse's 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 1836-October 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. Leduc's 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, Crosse's 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, 1965

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

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(b. Broomfield, Somersetshire, United Kingdom, 17 June 1784;

d. Broomfield, 6 July 1855), electricity, chemistry, geology, natural law.

Crosse was among the earliest electrochemists to use electricity in mineral solutions to form naturally occurring crystals under experimental conditions. His observations of tiny insects within a laboratory environment supposed to be hostile to life precipitated an international controversy about the role of miracles and natural law in the formation of life. Despite the unwanted notoriety, Crosse was regarded as an eminent gentleman-philosopher whose avocation in experimental science promoted scientific learning in provincial regions of Great Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Education and Early Electrical Experiments . Andrew Crosse lived with his parents, a younger brother, and half sister at a small estate, Fyne Court, in the parish of Broomfield, Somersetshire, England. His father, Richard Crosse, was a politically liberal high sheriff for Somersetshire whose scientific friends included Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Priestley. Like his father, Andrew’s mother, Susannah Mary Porter, supported her son’s scientific interests by employing a clerical tutor and, after her husband’s death, supplying Andrew with electrical apparatus for use in experiments.

For secondary school studies, Andrew Crosse attended Reverend Samuel Seyer’s Royal Fort School in Bristol, where young Crosse befriended other sons of the landed gentry. In 1802, he enrolled at Brasenose College, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner—a status that conferred certain special privileges such as dining with the college’s fellows. After taking his degree and upon reaching his majority, he returned home in 1805 to manage his family’s estate and nurse his terminally ill mother. He continued to live at Fyne Court with his brother and half sister until he married Mary Anne Hamilton in 1809. Over the next decade Mary Anne gave birth to seven children, with only four surviving into adulthood.

After leaving Oxford, Crosse abandoned plans to pursue a career in law to devote his time to electrical experiments at his estate. He outfitted a laboratory in the music hall of Fyne Court where he routinely conducted his experiments. He befriended literary and scientific men, most notably the chemist Humphry Davy and the amateur experimental electrician George John Singer, who supplied Crosse with a battery table of fifty large Leyden jars along with other equipment. In the organ gallery of the music hall Crosse assembled an instrument designed to measure atmospheric electricity, consisting of a cylindrical electrical machine and brass ball suspended over a large capacitor. He connected the ensemble to one-third mile of copper wires strung along the trees of his estate and observed that fog produced a much larger potential than other atmospheric conditions. His production of noisy and bright discharges in these experiments caused neighbors to dub him “the thunder and lightning man” (C. Crosse, p. 114). He reported his observations in lectures he delivered at the Taunton Mechanics Institute, Bristol, of which he was chairman. Singer described the experiments in Elements of Electricity and Electro-Chemistry (1814), a widely circulated textbook.

During this time, Crosse also conducted electrocrystallization experiments in which he sustained voltaic currents in mineral solutions that caused crystals to form on the current-carrying platinum wires. He began these studies as early as 1807, when he visited the nearby Holwell Cave and became fascinated by its rich stalactites and stalagmites. After several years, he produced more than two hundred varieties of crystals that included aragonite, malachite, and quartz. In 1836, he reported on his formation of crystals, improvements on the voltaic battery, and observations on atmospheric electricity to the Geological and Chemical Sections of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) at Bristol. His audiences favorably received the evidence that his experiments seemed to provide in support of theories explaining naturally occurring geological formations by electrical action. Crosse emerged as “one of the great show-beasts of the meeting,” having achieved national repute as a scientific philosopher of eminence (C. Crosse, p. 150).

The Acari Controversy . Crosse’s new public recognition turned into notoriety when his next set of experiments caused an international sensation. While making further electrocrystallization experiments at Fyne Court in 1836, he unexpectedly observed the appearance, development, and propagation of tiny mites within conditions that he believed were destructive to life. He gave no opinion about the cause, but his observations prompted others to speculate about such agents as miracles and spontaneous generation. In the experiments, Crosse dripped a dilute solution of silicate of potash (potassium silicate) and hydrochloric acid on a porous stone of red iron oxide, electrified with current passing from a voltaic battery through platinum wires. Over the course of several weeks, he observed tiny white specks on the stone that gradually developed into mature insects. Advised by the British comparative anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen, he concluded they were cheese mites and assigned them to the genus Acarus. An unauthorized account about the “Extraordinary Experiment” appeared in the local Somerset County Gazette and, reprinted by newspapers across Europe, made Crosse’s discovery famous.

But readers generally denounced the news of an electrician allegedly professing natural—rather than divine— agency in the creation of life. Scientific experts were drawn into the fray, with one widely circulated report claiming that the famous chemist Michael Faraday had successfully replicated the experiment, but Faraday publicly denied any interest in the question. An experiment by John Edward Gray and John George Children, zoologists at the British Museum, however, failed to generate the Acarus; their null results thus lent support to the deistic side of the debates. Others showed more sympathy toward the possibility of spontaneous generation. Crosse’s friend, the Sandwich surgeon William Henry Weekes, reported having successfully reproduced the Acari (as Weekes termed the insects) in his trials. References to Crosse’s experiments in further popular texts, including Robert Chambers’s anonymous and widely controversial Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), John Newbery’s children’s book, The Newtonian Philosophy, Henry Noad’s Lectures on Electricity (1844), and Alfred Smee’s Elements of Electro-biology (1849), helped to make the galvanic insects famous among Victorian readers.

Later Researches . Retreating from the debates, Crosse returned to private research and his life as a liberal, local magistrate and country squire of means. At Fyne Court, he and his wife managed a dispensary where they offered electrotherapy to Broomfield villagers suffering from rheumatism and paralysis. Despite his retreat from scientific society, he maintained his intellectual friendships, hosting several distinguished guests, including Faraday, at his private laboratory. He also attended the less publicized meetings of the Electrical Society in London, of which he was a member, and the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, of which he was a vice president. Mary Anne Crosse died in 1846, and on 22 July 1850, Andrew married Cornelia Augusta Hewitt Burns, a member of his London intellectual circle who shared in his scientific interests. Their marriage produced one son, born in 1852.

As with his earliest experiments, Andrew Crosse’s last set of electrical experiments lent support to the latest theoretical developments in geology. In experiments he conducted in the 1850s, he employed a sustaining Daniell’s battery to electrify a gold coin resting on a slab of marble in a weak sulfuric acid solution. He observed carbonic gas bubbles emerging from the decomposing marble and flecks of gold oxide separating from the coin, and he argued that the mechanical action of the bubbles was sufficient to dislodge the flecks. The interpretation resonated with a turn toward mechanical explanations of geological phenomena. However, when he presented his argument at the 1854 BAAS meeting in Liverpool, members reacted with skepticism. After the meeting, he returned to his experimental trials to resolve the criticisms, but a terminal paralytic seizure interrupted his work. Cornelia, who had assisted him, completed the unfinished experiments. Through a paper read to the Chemical Section of the BAAS at Glasgow in 1855, she presented results that vindicated her husband’s argument.

Andrew Crosse acquired national eminence for his electrical studies and international notoriety for stirring debates over divine versus natural causes. His private avocation at his country estate epitomized a form of country-house scientific research in Britain that gradually diminished alongside the rise of professional scientific institutions and the building of specialized laboratories toward the end of the nineteenth century. Accompanying his public fame is the popular image of Crosse as the embodiment of Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein character; however no evidence exists confirming that Crosse may have inspired the gothic novel. His experiments, no doubt, contributed to the culture of electricity in which Frankenstein also participated. Posthumously, his manor house—largely destroyed by a fire in 1894—was given to the National Trust in 1967. Primarily through the efforts of the Somerset Trust for Nature Conservation, the remaining structure, including the undamaged music hall, was restored in 1977 for tenancy by the trust and for other public uses.



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———. The Story of Fyne Court and Broomfield. Reprint. Broomfield: Somerset Wildlife Trust, 1997.

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Donald L. Opitz

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