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Varley, C F

Category: Scientist


Cromwell Fleetwood "C.F." Varley, FRSA (6 April 1828 – 2 September 1883) is chiefly remembered as a leading Victorian electrical engineer who was closely involved in the testing and laying of the successful transatlantic telegraph cables of the 1860s.

By the early 1870s Cromwell Varley was widely recognized as one of the leading telegraph engineers of the period.

Born in Kentish Town, London, he was the second of ten children. Varley learned scientific skills from his father, the artist and inventor Cornelius Varley, and ‘doubtless’ acquired occult interests from his uncle, the astrologer and artist John Varley. His brothers, Samuel Alfred Varley and Frederick Henry Varley, were also improvers and inventors in connection with telegraphy. 

The family were Sandemanians, part of the same congregation as Michael Faraday.

Cromwell Varley FRS, electrical discharge and Victorian spiritualism - Richard Noakes

Historians of physics principally regard him as a key figure in the ‘prehistory’ of the electron because in 1871 the Proceedings of the Royal Society published a paper in which he seemed to anticipate the corpuscular nature of cathode rays.
For many Victorians, however, Varley was as notable for his spiritualism as for his electrical researches.. and for Varley spiritualism was one of the most significant contexts .. for the 1871 paper. The latter work sought explicitly to unravel the mystery of the electrical discharge through rarefied gases but also showed the hazy boundary between the invisible and visible and material and immaterial domains. This suggested that one of the invisible powers associated with spiritualism—….might be photographed and rendered scientifically more credible, and also made it easier to understand how imponderable spirits could have apparently material attributes.
Although the physical implications of Varley's 1871 publication were not explored until the 1890s, Varley's ‘spiritualistic’ uses of it shaped the way in which some late-Victorian scientists investigated the puzzling phenomena of psychical research.

He was a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, (1865); a Fellow of the Royal Society, (1871); and a Founder member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers which became the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

 Silvanus Thompson FRS testing the physiological effect of a large alternating magnetic field.

Measuring Spiritualism using scientific method

Varley's spiritualistic interests have perplexed historians since his death in 1883. Early biographers seem to have been too embarrassed to mention it, although the author of his entry for the Dictionary of national biography noted somewhat disdainfully that Varley was a ‘rather credulous investigator of spiritualistic and other “occult” phenomena’.  But they would be doing the man a great disservice, Varley was one of the few people to very actively research this area scientifically:

Cromwell Varley FRS, electrical discharge and Victorian spiritualism - Richard Noakes

Recent studies, .. challenge the sharp distinctions between science and ‘pseudo-scientific’ spiritualism implicit in these accounts. They demonstrate the intimate relationships between the Victorian worlds of electrical engineering, physical sciences and spiritualism and explain why it was possible for someone with Varley's scientific skills to regard spiritualism as a way of extending, not undermining, existing sciences. In publicizing his own evidence for spiritualism and taking electrical instruments into séances, Varley sought to turn his mastery of the electric telegraphy into a reason for trusting him on the more troublesome question of the ‘spiritual’ telegraph that he and thousands of other Victorians thought connected this world and the next. .. Varley used his expertise in probing a much wider range of electrical phenomena, notably the mysterious and often invisible phenomena of electrical discharge tubes, to invent new ways of showing that the strange and frequently unseen manifestations of spiritualism had a ‘natural’ basis.


Varley attended a number of séances with D D Home with the objective of measuring and observing the phenomena that Home produced.


The timidity or apathy of men of science in England on this subject is to be deplored. …. At present I know of only three eminent men of science in England, who have gone fully into the subject; and in their case the enquiry has resulted in a conviction of the genuineness of the phenomena. I allude to Mr. De Morgan the mathematician, Mr. Varley the electrician [sic], and Mr. Wallace the naturalist, all, as is well known, men of high distinction in widely differing departments of science.

 Although Varley never joined the SPR, his friend, the electrician and spiritualistic investigator Walter Coffin did, and seems to have transmitted Varley's work to the society.


The key to Varley’s success in this area was his background in developing instruments capable of electrical measurement.  There are interesting parallels between Varley and Sir William Crookes, who was also very innovative in designing experiments and the instruments for measuring them. 

Varley gained all his experience practically through his involvement with telegraphy.  Varley joined the newly founded Electric Telegraph Company in 1846, becoming chief engineer for the London area by 1852, culminating in his appointment in 1861 as engineer-in-chief to the Electric and International Telegraph Company (EITC). He devised many techniques and instruments for fault-finding and for improving the performance of the telegraph. In 1870, he patented the cymaphen, a kind of telegraph that could transmit speech. The first transatlantic telegraph cable failed in 1858 and Varley was appointed to a joint investigative committee established by the Board of Trade and the Atlantic Telegraph Company.

The committee reported in 1861 and this resulted in a second cable in 1865, Varley replacing Wildman Whitehouse as chief electrician. It was a success and Varley developed many improvements in the technology. :

Cromwell Varley FRS, electrical discharge and Victorian spiritualism - Richard Noakes

During the official inquiries into the costly failures of the Atlantic and Red Sea telegraphs, he strongly endorsed the view of William Thomson and others … that the success of submarine telegraphy hinged on the adoption of robust new standards, protocols and instruments of electrical measurement. Thomson was so impressed with Varley's abilities that in 1865 he invited Varley to join him and Fleeming Jenkin FRS in a lucrative business partnership designing and marketing telegraphic instruments, many of which were used on the successful Atlantic telegraph cables of the late 1860s. The scientific and business skills that Varley honed in his business partnership proved invaluable after 1870 when, after the British government's purchase of the EITC and other operators of inland telegraphs, Varley embarked on a career as a private consultant engineer.


The role of Ellen

A portrait said to be of Ellen

Varley was married twice.  He had two sons and two daughters with his first wife, Ellen (née Rouse), whom he married on 4 October 1855. And Varley did not have to go very far to gain his most important experiences of spiritualism, as he found out that Ellen was very gifted spiritually.

In the late 1850s, he used ‘mesmeric powers’ [hypnotism], to entrance Ellen who, in this state, ‘displayed the apparent ability to perceive distant objects and scenes’ – in effect she could remote view by going out of body.  She was also able to communicate with others by thought alone.

The very fact that Ellen was so open to spiritual influence, resulted in her attracting the likewise spiritually gifted, and it appears that eventually Ellen became a ‘channel’ through which invisible intelligent agencies manifested themselves.  As most Victorians appeared to associate the spirit realm with the dead, both Ellen and her husband assumed that all these communications, typically via a ‘telegraphic’ code of raps on furniture, were with dead people.  But as she could go out of body, then there is every reason to suppose many others could go out of body, and it appears that many of her communicants were living.

Séances with Ellen convinced Cromwell Varley that there were ‘invisible agents’, but sittings with D. D. Home persuaded him that Home had the ability to move objects at a distance by some unknown force.

A late 1800's Geissler tube on a stem with rare blue fluorescent glass and uranium glass spheres and stratification discharge

The possibility of the ‘unseen particle - Perspectives on rarefied media: the 1871 paper

Much of Varley’s research into spiritualist phenomena was based on the use of Geissler tubes – ‘electrical’ discharge vacuum tubes, capable of withstanding low pressures and of producing much brighter discharges than before. Varley owned and was familiar with Geissler tubes at least as early as 1867, because by this time he was using them to indicate current strength in an apparatus simulating the electrical characteristics of long telegraph cables.


Not content simply to regard the Geissler tube as a technology of display, he devised two new strategies for probing the ‘action inside the tube’, in particular the faint luminosity stretching between the electrodes. Crucially, both strategies involved extending the range of the human senses of sight and touch. The first was to photograph the tube in a ‘perfectly dark room’, the second was to use ‘tell tales’.

Having connected a ‘very well-exhausted’ tube of ‘Geissler's manufacture’ (containing trace amounts of hydrogen and ring-shaped electrodes) to a circuit containing a powerful Daniell battery, a galvanometer and a variable resistance, he proceeded to observe the colour, position and shape of the luminosity as the resistance was increased and decreased.

The ‘tell-tale’ and the photographic plate were then Varley's key tools for changing the perspective on the Geissler tube and for highlighting the limitations of the human senses. The photographic plate revealed features of the electrical discharge that were hidden from human vision, but more exciting was that the tell-tale showed what appeared to be a luminous immaterial form that could deliver material blows.

Many of the manifestations from séances at the time were luminous and immaterial, however, they were also apparently able to affect matter.  Varley concluded that there must be particles ‘atoms’ if you like, that we cannot see/perceive.

In other words, if we imagine an atom with concentric rings at different vibrational rates, each with their own functions, there may be some atoms with functions only at the higher rates of vibration - and thus invisible to us, whereas the atoms we could 'see', had functions at the ‘Earth’ level that we could perceive, - all the rest were invisible to us and appeared to be invisible to cameras as well.  Varley alluded to the ‘limits to matter as indicated by the eye and touch’ and to the hazy boundary between the ‘material and spiritual existences’ during the first exhibition of his experiments at a Royal Society soirée in early March 1871, but the final paper in the Proceedings contained the complete details.

One of Varley’s closest friends was William Henry Harrison, a photographic expert and spiritualist, who had his own periodical, the Spiritualist.  Harrison and Varley conducted numerous experiments with photographic equipment in the hope that they might be able to capture these ‘emanations’.  Their aim was two-fold. 

In the first place they hoped some form of photography would help shift the burden of proof from potentially untrustworthy human observers, to machines that could not be influenced by unconscious signals from experimenters. In the second place they wanted to pioneer more and better equipment in this area.  Harrison and Varley were hoping that technological innovations might enable them to capture this form of ‘radiation’ or ‘particle’. 

It is of interest that they never succeeded with photography, leading Varley to assume that it was more particle than light, but if an ‘energetic object’ can be given ‘functional capability’, [in effect everything is software] then of course it is both particle and radiation in Varley’s language.

Thus if we make the radical shift of thinking that an atom contains the software of the universe, held in a form of bubble memory.  [Or more correctly egg shaped memory, because to all mystics the universe is perceived as an egg at both macroscopic and microscopic levels].  Everything in the physical universe is assembled from atoms.  But depending upon what class of thing it is – what aggregate it belongs to [see Aggregates]  it only displays certain Functions.

In effect, if we view the atom with all its functions of the universe, only certain functions will be active and those functions will be the ones to which the thing belongs – its CLASS.

And some classes are generally invisible - angels!


Lord Lindsey with his son

Lord Lindsay FRS was an aristocratic astronomer, bibliophile and electrical inventor.  At the time that Varley was experimenting Lindsay too was exploring the possibility that a large magnetic field might induce ‘physiological responses’ - levitation.  Lindsay had been interested in occult subjects long before this period and in 1869 he testified publicly to the genuineness of D. D. Home's powers of levitation and cases of ‘second sight’ in his own family.

Varley was a ‘frequent’ visitor to Lindsay's laboratory.  It was in Lindsay's laboratory that Varley helped the aristocrat construct a giant electromagnet to explore the capacity of ‘imponderable agents’ and powers to act like material bodies. He and Lindsay staged public exhibitions of the power of an electromagnet to levitate a heavy copper ring between its poles and to deflect a mercury-filled India Rubber tube through which an electric current was passing. Varley's commentary on the copper ring experiment reflected his 1869 view that the imponderable power of thought was in ‘some sort solid’.  ‘The magnetism has no action upon the mercury’, he explained,

but has upon the electric current, therefore the tube must be suspended by the electric current, and the electric current suspended by the powerful magnetic rays. In other words, a heavy material object (mercury) is supported upon an imponderable electricity which, in its turn, is supported by an imponderable magnetism.

Again this is materialistic thinking, and inevitable for the day.  But if one turns this on its head and says ‘nothing is actually material, all is spirit, it is just that some spirit appears solid to us because our perception system organises it that way’, one can then start to imagine a vast realm of software objects all acting upon one another functionally. 

Varley's preoccupations with the action of imponderables on material objects casts important new light on the Royal Society Proceedings paper of 1871, that is now only remembered as an early anticipation of the electron. When we interpret this paper in the context of Varley's other electrical experiments and his uses of the phenomena of the Geissler tube, we can see that he was attempting to show that the boundaries between the material and non-material or spiritual existences were purely a matter of perspective.

Sir William Crookes copied Varley’s example of using a delicate ‘tell-tale’ to probe the mechanical effects of electrified molecules in rarefied gases and to use this work in showing that, from a different perspective, ‘hard and fast’ distinctions between the material and non-material domains become more difficult to sustain.

 In his famous lecture ‘On radiant matter’ delivered at the 1879 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he explained that atoms in this state seemed to behave like rays of light or pure energy and so revealed a ‘borderland where Matter and Force seem to merge into one another’.

In 1897, during his presidential address to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), Crookes considered how different the world would appear when viewed from the domain of ‘extremest minuteness’. Creatures inhabiting this microscopic realm would not share our perceptions of natural law—they would, for example, consider surface tension to be a ‘dominant’ force and ‘hardly believe’ in the ‘universality of gravitation’; our laws of nature were inevitably reflections of our ‘materialistic’ and ‘too terrestrial’ a view of the world. Contemplating the ‘unseen world’ of the ‘infinitely little’ made it easier to comprehend such spiritualistic claims as ‘spiritual beings’ being able to manifest themselves with material bodies and ‘intelligence, thought, and will, existing without form or matter, and untrammelled by gravitation or space’.


C.F. Varley died at Cromwell House, Bexleyheath, Kent, in 1883, aged 55, from undisclosed causes.






  • Richard Noakes - Cromwell Varley FRS, electrical discharge and Victorian spiritualism - [22 January 2007.DOI: 10.1098/rsnr.2006.0161]
  • W. Thomson to E. Sabine, 23 March 1871, Royal Society Archives, MC.9.182; C. F. Varley, ‘Some experiments on the discharge of electricity through rarefied media and the atmosphere’, Proc. R. Soc. Lond. 19, 236–242 (1871). Varley was elected on 8 June 1871.
  • Varley's most comprehensive statement of his spiritualist beliefs is C. F. Varley, ‘Evidence of Mr. Varley’, in [Anon.], Report on spiritualism of the committee of the London Dialectical Society (Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, 1871), pp. 157–172
  • C. F. Varley, ‘On the Atlantic telegraph’, Proc. R. Inst. Gr. Br. 5, 45–59 (1867–69).
  • Sir William Crookes - ‘On the illumination’
  • Sir William Crookes - Crookes drew explicitly on Varley's experimental knowledge in, ‘On repulsion resulting from radiation. Part V’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 169, 243–318 (1878).
  • Sir William Crookes - ‘On radiant matter’



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