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Crosse, Andrew

Category: Genius

 

Andrew Crosse (17 June 1784 – 6 July 1855) was a British scientist, poet, mineralogist and eccentric, who was born and died at Fyne Court, Broomfield, Somerset.

Crosse, for most of his life, was virtually unknown in the professional scientific world, living in great retirement and seclusion.  But his experiments were prolific, his approach meticulous and honest, and his patience extraordinary, with some experiments being allowed to continue for years with volumes of observations being kept about the result. 

Crosse was an early pioneer and experimenter in the use of electricity. He became widely known from press reports of an electro-crystallization experiment he conducted in 1836, during which insects appeared.  The results have never been satisfactorily explained, they were certainly not due to sloppy science, and Crosse himself did not even venture an explanation, leaving the results to stand for others to study.  We have provided 3 observations describing this experiment.

What we know of Andrew and his experiments is from the only reliable biography, written by his second wife after his death, under somewhat difficult circumstances:

Memorials, Scientific and Literary of Andrew Crosse, the Electrician – Cornelia and Andrew Crosse
His fame would have been wider, had he been Poor, ambitious, or wise in worldly wisdom. He was none of these things. For myself I claim some indulgence at the hands of criticism, inasmuch as memory and affection, rather than confidence in my own powers, have supported me through the Prosecution of the task. The details of my husband's experiments have cost me no small trouble to collect; for his notes were made, most generally, on loose scraps of paper, and to arrange them required an intimate knowledge of the trains of thought which were in his mind when he performed many apparently isolated or dissimilar experiments. It has not been in my Power to consult any scientific friend of his early days; and I know that much has been lost that would now have been to me most valuable.

 

Early Life

“Mr. Richard Crosse married Susannah, daughter of Jasper Porter, Esq. of Blaxhold, in the county of Somerset, and on the 17th of June, in 1784, Andrew their first child was born. Mr. and Mrs. Crosse had one other son, born in 1786, and Mr. Crosse had an elder daughter, the offspring of his first marriage.” 

Crosse was born at Fyne Court, his family were “like their house, ..old and curious”. From the age of six until he was eight he was taught by the Reverend Mr White, in Dorchester. On 1 February 1792 he was sent to boarding school in Bristol. 

Happy as Andrew was with his companions, yet never was a schoolboy more delighted to return home for the holidays. Even in advanced life his lively descriptions of the exuberant joy he felt on these occasions made one realise the picture of the greeting he gave his mother, as, tumbling head over heels into her presence, he seemed perfectly wild from excess of animal spirits; he loved his mother almost to idolatry.

an array of Leyden jars

Around the age of 12, Crosse persuaded one of his teachers to let him attend a series of lectures on the natural sciences, the second of which was on the subject of electricity. This led to his lifelong interest in the subject. Crosse first started experimenting with electricity during his time in the sixth form, when he built a Leyden jar.

Memorials, Scientific and Literary of Andrew Crosse, the Electrician – Cornelia and Andrew Crosse
I heard Mr. Crosse say: "I remember as if it was only yesterday, standing near the wall of our playground alone, and in a reflective mood, (I was often so, when not actively engaged in sports or mischief,) I thought to myself, suppose I was sure of living a hundred years, it would appear to me as nothing, so soon would it pass away; this feeling made me profoundly melancholy.
But in general I was a very happy boy, careless, and extravagantly fond of fun. When I returned home for the holidays, I was made to read from the Greek three hours a day to my father, who was very strict. For my own amusement [sic] I had read whole volumes of the Philosophical Transactions, devoured Fielding, laughed at his Trullabeer, and formed an undying affection for Parson Adams. Voyages and travels were my delight. I liked Dean Swift’s wit amazingly. I hated the pomposity of Richardson, and much preferred the broad coarse humour of Fielding. 'Sir Charles Grandison' was my aversion, a stiff, unnatural, ridiculous fool; Johnson, too, I hated."

Brasenose College, Oxford

When Andrew was about sixteen, he lost his father, but he nevertheless studied at Brasenose College, Oxford, after leaving school.  It does not sound to have been a very edifying experience:

It took some years to rub off the prejudices of class which I had acquired at Oxford. I remember once, we were reading Aristotle on Friendship-'Don't you think this rather too romantic?' observed my tutor. 'Not at all, sir,' I replied: 'I think a man ought to make every sacrifice for his friend.'
I saw a smile of derision pass round the room, and I said no more.

But in 1805, his beloved mother died.  Andrew wrote the following on the outside of a letter from his mother, dated May 28th, 1805:

"The last letter I ever received from this best of parents, who died in the following July. No pen can describe my misery."

 and he abandoned his studies and took over the management of the family estates at the age of 21.

The house at Fyne Court in Somerset before the fire of 1894

Memorials, Scientific and Literary of Andrew Crosse, the Electrician – Cornelia and Andrew Crosse
……if superstitions attach themselves to the scene;-and truly at Fyne Court
'A sense of mystery the spirit daunted,
And said as plain as whisper in the ear-
The place is haunted!"

From that point on his was a continual battle to keep the family estate solvent.  He was not interested in money, or possessions, wealth or status, his love was in finding out and experimenting, with the objective of furthering man’s lot, making things better for people as a whole, and as he said

"my family were learned and honourable men as long as I can look back; but they had the happy knack of turning a guinea into a shilling, and I have inherited that faculty pretty strongly…. [but]
The real lover of science is rarely a covetous man, and not often a rich one. …………….

And we also find

Memorials, Scientific and Literary of Andrew Crosse, the Electrician – Cornelia and Andrew Crosse
His warm feelings of consideration for others, the utter absence of all selfish prejudices of class, together with an unbending integrity made Mr. Crosse a great favourite with the people generally. "You have immense influence in the county,” said a brother magistrate to him one day. "I despise all influence,” replied Mr. Crosse. "I don't think I possess any; and if I did, I, would not exert it; I only desire the good of my fellow-creatures.”

“I value one ounce of knowledge more than a ton of gold; but I value one grain weight of human kindness more than a ton of knowledge."

 

Which brings us on to the sources for his inspiration.

Source of inspiration

Cross was a devout and humble believer in God – the Creator.  He was not interested in God as father figure or substitute parent as religion at that time appeared to teach, but he saw the Creation itself as an ordered expression of the work of creation and hence a Creator

He reads the language of the Creator in all that surrounds him, and each successive discovery the more distinctly teaches him his immeasurable distance from the Throne of Truth: thus is his mind at once humbled and exalted.

Kilve beach Somerset

And

We must be blind indeed nor to feel convinced of the predominance of DESIGN throughout the whole earth, in every ramification.

And

 

Edward W Cox [as quoted in Crosse’s biography]
….. as you talk with Mr. Crosse, in rambling fashion, flying from theme to theme, and gleaning something new and instructive from all, you will probably (for how can thinking minds avoid it?) touch upon the lofty topic of religion.
'Of reason and foreknowledge, will and fate;' you will then discover that Mr. Crosse is, like almost all philosophers, a profoundly religious man, and yet he has not escaped the old slander which has assailed all men of science, imputing to them atheism and infidelity.
An atheist, indeed! Look at him! hear him! His every look and tone and word show his sense of a present Deity; veneration or his Creator's greatness, love of his goodness, reliance upon his providence, are habitual with him. He is a Christian in the best and noblest import of the name. But he abhors priest-craft when directed to purposes of human agrandisement and power.

Crosse was also completely accepting of the wisdom of the Great Work.  This was not some fatalistic belief, he totally accepted that there is a Plan and ‘it is good’, because how could it be otherwise?

 

I have, nevertheless, a firm belief that 'whatever is, is best.'

A Being who can make so beautiful a fabric as this world undoubtedly is, where all opposites are linked together so as to form one grand and harmonious whole, would never, in the plenitude of His boundless wisdom and benevolence, have raised up such "scourge as death”, save but to answer the wisest of ends.

To have come to this conclusion required considerable spiritual understanding.  Andrew’s life was in general riven with the loss of people he loved.  He lost his mother and father very early, he lost his sister, lost his tutor Rev White, his friend Singer, and there are others, many others. 

In 1809, aged 25, Andrew Crosse married Mary Anne, daughter of Captain Hamilton.  In the succeeding ten years, they had seven children; three died in childhood.  In January 1846, Andrew Crosse lost both his beloved wife and brother, who died within four days of each other. 

 

The only thing that appears to have kept him going at that time was the love he had for and received from his dog.

You observe that you were glad I was not alone at Broomfield during my late sojourn there. I never am alone when I have my faithful dog Greg with me. Where shall I find a heart one hundredth part so true to me as hers?

In an attempt to escape the scenes of all his grief, Andrew spent the spring and early summer of 1850 in London, and for one of the few times in his life, ‘entered much into the scientific and literary society of the metropolis’. And by doing so, he met his second wife and on the 22nd of July, 1850, they were married in London, at the Church of St. Marylebone.

Nevertheless, these deaths, together with much family illness and many worries, caused Andrew intense grief throughout his whole life. 

Mr. Crosse …was one of those almost morbidly anxious persons who feel and suffer all things intensely. I have been unable to get any memorials of the first years of his married life; but from some records of his feelings, found in his own handwriting, he must have been much attached to his first wife. And of his fondness for his children in early life all bear witness who remember him in those days. Often and often has he been known to walk into Taunton, in the dead of a winter's night, to procure medical advice for his sick children, thinking, in his affectionate solicitude, that no one could do the errand as well as himself.

Tim Wilmot - Road to Old Sodbury

His electrical experiments were in many ways a haven in a sea of sorrow.  Andrew was clearly a genius, and extremely intellectual people are always in danger of losing wisdom and inspiration by letting their ego and knowledge overpower that from the spiritual world.  But the emotion resulting from so much grief, may have kept the door open.  The other key influence was his brother, who provided immense support even though he too died in 1846:

Mr. Crosse used to call his brother the three M's; for his favourite studies were music, mathematics, and metaphysics; in the latter subject he was deeply read. And his mental influence upon Andrew was immense, reminding one of the effects of William Humboldt's studies upon his brother Alexander. Mr. Crosse often congratulated himself on having had such a companion and friend as his metaphysical brother, for the tendency of his mind was eminently useful in counteracting the materialistic effect which sometimes follows an exclusive devotion to the physical sciences.

The final key in the door to wisdom was his love of Nature, his long walks in the hills and his constant observation of, and love and respect for, the world about him

I never found any animal except occasionally my own species, whom I could not tame by persevering kindness. Many strange adventures with bird and beast have occurred to me in these rambles, and once I nearly lost my life from a tremendous storm that overtook me at night; but I have been well repaid for all minor inconveniences by the opportunities afforded me of observing the phenomena of Nature. The startling meteor, the magnificent aurora borealis, the lunar rainbow spanning the horizon, with pale and mystical light, and, far above all, the refulgent planets rolling in their appointed course, and at a vastly greater distance, the ocean of starry worlds, whose size and numbers mock the telescopic calculations of erring philosophers.

 The Quantocks today, little changed since Crosse's time

Electrical experiments

Little is known in academic circles these days about Crosse’s work, but he had an enormous influence upon some of the better known researchers, many of whom visited him to discuss ideas.  Along with Sir Humphry Davy (who visited Fyne Court in 1827), Crosse was one of the first to develop large voltaic piles and suggested many improvements to the voltaic battery. 

Richard_Phillips_(chemist)

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.  Crosse spent huge amounts of time trying to devise "a battery at once cheap, powerful, and durable”, and he fully recognised the potential of such a battery “he might say with Archimedes that he could move the world."

Around 1807 he started to experiment with electro-crystallization :

Memorials, Scientific and Literary of Andrew Crosse, the Electrician – Cornelia and Andrew Crosse

…. a union of electric action with a moderately uniform temperature, and sufficiency of heat to prevent congelation of the fluid under action, absence of light, together with the interposition of a more or less porous medium, will attract the crystallisable matter from its solution, and produce a variety of forms, which will not make their appearance without such conditions. We have likewise seen that those crystallisations or formations are greatly assisted by constant motion. Under these circumstances, I have produced about 200 varieties of minerals, exactly resembling in all respects similar ones found in nature, as well as some others never before discovered in nature or formed by art.

 

Crosse used electricity to heal, we have an observation
describing one of his patient successes

In total he produced about 24 electro-crystallized minerals which were new – some of them, incidentally, of great beauty, and many taking months and years to form.  Crosse went on to separate copper from its ores using electrolysis, experimented with the electrolysis of sea water, wine and brandy to purify them, and examined the effects of electricity on vegetation.  He was also interested in the practical uses of electricity and magnetism, including the development of loudspeakers and telegraphy.  At times on reading his achievements, one wonders how many of his discoveries have been totally lost, given that so many crucial discoveries appear to have been ignored.

Memorials, Scientific and Literary of Andrew Crosse, the Electrician – Cornelia and Andrew Crosse

It is perhaps a sad reflection of humanity, that practically
all of Andrew's useful discoveries and his contribution to our
understanding of electricity, have been virtually erased by the
sensationalism drummed up around his insects.  It is still
going on, with books that credit him with 'creating life', an
accusation he found deeply repugnant, given his very sincere
views of God.

In acting on sea water, it is necessary to submit it to one distillation, a process which only renders it fit for washing, but not for drinking. A very inexpensive simple electrical arrangement is then applied to the cask or cistern of sea water; and in twenty-four hours or less the water becomes perfectly wholesome to the taste, and will remain sweet in open vessels for an indefinite time.  Water thus purified has kept in an open cask for 14 months, and is now as sweet as when first purified. This apparatus furnishes about 100 gallons in 24 hours.
The mode of electrisation is curiously simple. Two cylinders, of dissimilar metals (generally sheet zinc and sheet iron), are placed in two porous earthenware tubes, open at the top, and closed at the bottom. The metallic cylinders being connected together by a copper riband, the porous tubes, with the metals inverted in them, are filled with water and placed in the fluid required to be purified. The electrical action immediately commences, and the fluid not only becomes purified, but is rendered ANTISEPTIC in a few hours…… The antiseptic power of electrified water is very remarkable. Not only can it be preserved for years perfectly clear and fresh, but it has the power of restoring the most putrid substances to sweetness. Pieces of meat and the skins of animals in a state of putridity have been immersed in electrified water, and in a few hours rendered inodorous. Milk has also been kept sweet for three weeks in the middle of summer, by the application of electricity.

 

When Andrew had inherited Fyne Court, he had built his own laboratory and gradually equipped it with more and more sophisticated equipment. In this he was helped by friends:

He became acquainted with Mr. Singer the electrician, and during the short life of that gentleman (he died at the age of thirty-two) they were frequent companions. Mr. Singer supplied him with his splendid cylindrical electrical machine and battery table which contained fifty large Leyden jars. The friends spent many pleasant days at Broomfield, in working together at statical electricity. They used also to take long walks over the Quantock hills;

said to be a small part of his laboratories , which actually filled his house

George John Singer (1786–1817) was an English early pioneer of electrical research, noted for his publications and for lectures delivered privately and at the Russell Institution.

A great deal of justified interest has recently been aroused from Tesla’s experiments in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  But Crosse was pursuing experiments in the early 1800s almost on a similar scale with the same apparent lack of fear.  Using an insulated wire some 1.25 miles long, suspended from poles and trees, Crosse was able to determine the polarity of the atmosphere under various weather conditions. His results were published by his friend George Singer in 1814, as part of Singer's Elements of Electricity and Electro-Chemistry.

My friend Andrew Crosse, Esq., of Broomfield, near Taunton, a most active and intelligent electrician, has lately made very numerous observations with a remarkably extensive atmospherical conductor, consisting of copper wire. The most unwearied exertion has been employed to give unexampled extent and perfection to this apparatus. The insulated wire has been extended to the extraordinary length of one mile and a quarter. It has now been deemed expedient to shorten it to 1800 feet. * * * A wire of this kind has been kept; strained for eighteen months without injury, and from observation of its indications, and those obtained in other experiments of less duration, the following deductions have been made'-

  • 1st. In the usual state of the atmosphere, its electricity is invariably positive.
  • 2nd. Fogs, rain, snow, hail, and sleet produce alterations of the electric state of the wire. It is usually negative when they first appear, but oftentimes changes to positive, increasing gradually in strength, and then gradually decreasing, and changing its quality every three or four minutes. These phenomena are so constant, that whenever the negative electricity is observed in the apparatus, it is considered as certain there is either rain, snow, hail, or mist in its immediate neighbourhood, or that a thunder-cloud is near.
  • 3rd. The approach of a charged cloud produces sometimes positive and at others negative signs at first.

During this display of electric power, so awful to an ordinary observer, the electrician sits quietly in front of the apparatus, conducts the lightning in any required direction, and employs it to fuse wires, decompose fluids, or fire inflammable substances; and when the effects are too powerful, he connects the insulated wire with the ground, and transmits the accumulated electricity with silence and with safety.

 

And there is this

"The electrical battery employed by Mr. Crosse, consists of fifty jars, containing seventy-three square feet of coated surface: to charge it requires 230 vigorous turns of the wheel of a twenty-inch cylinder electrical machine; nevertheless, with about one third of a mile of wire, Mr. Crosse has frequently collected sufficient electricity to charge and discharge this battery twenty times in a minute, accompanied by reports almost as loud as those of a cannon.

And

Having given up the trial of further experiments upon it, I took a book, and occupied myself with reading, leaving by chance the receiving ball at upwards of an inch distance from the ball in the atmospheric conductor. About four o'clock in the afternoon, whilst I was still reading, I suddenly heard a very strong explosion between the two balls, and shortly after many more took place, until they became one uninterrupted stream of explosions, which died away and recommenced with the opposite electricity in equal violence. The stream of fire was too vivid to look at for any length of time, and the effect was most splendid, and continued without intermission, save that occasioned by the interchange of electricities, for upwards of five hours.

Unfortunately not everyone appreciated his experiments, and it is somewhat clear that quite a number were terrified by the effects

Crosse's experiments where insects appeared fired
the public's imagination and many years later, stories
were still appearing based on his observations

“That’s Crosse of Broomfield,-the thunder and lightning man; you can’t go near his cursed house at night without danger of your life; them as have been there have seen devils, all surrounded by lightning, dancing on the wires that he has put up round his grounds."

In these days of central heating, warm offices and modern equipment, we are apt to dismiss the advances made by people like Andrew, without taking the time to either understand what he discovered, or the immense dedication that was required in those days to achieve results against all the odds

"To-day, with a large fire in the music room, the thermometer is two degrees and a half below freezing. In endeavouring to open the lid of the tea-pot, we found it frozen hard to the pot, with a rim of ice all round it! This in front of a large wood fire. The wind is roaring awfully, and the windows are rattling in their frames. My electrical glasses are exposed to imminent danger from their fluid contents being turned into ice. I am obliged to have fires in all directions. The snow on Broomfield Hill is drifted in some places to six feet deep or more. Last night the thermometer out of doors was thirteen degrees below freezing, and this before midnight

Death

As his life drew to a close, something of the mystic too emerged in Andrew Crosse.

Dec 4th 1849
Did you ever observe in an early summer sunrise, just before that glorious orb made his appearance, a stratum of sky above the horizon of a pellucid, unearthly golden green hue? It is rare, but sometimes to be seen. I feel surrounded by a similar kind of halo-a mixture of the earthly with the unearthly; such is my waking dream:-…………..

Towards the latter part of his life, he seems to have been constantly aching to go back ‘home’ as many mystics do....

January 12th 1850
You often talk of me as a philosopher, in the Greek sense of the term – a lover of wisdom .  I am so but a very humble and imperfect one…..Praying devoutly that I may at some time be permitted to snatch a glance at what true knowledge is. My soul would roam from sun to sun, from planet to planet,-inhaling every successive instant fresh portions of the Omniscient

Andrew Crosse died in the room in which he was born, beneath the roof where he had lived; and his mortal remains rest where his ancestors had been laid for more than two centuries. On the simple monumental obelisk which mark the place of his last home are these words._

SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF
ANDREW CROSSE,
THE ELECTRICIAN,
BORN JUNE 17TH, 1784. DIED JULY 6TH, 1815.
He was humble towards God and kind to his fellow-creatures.
THIS TRIBUTE OF AFFECTION IS RAISED BY CORNELIA, HIS WIFE.

 

 
 

Observations

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