Andrew Crosse 1784-1855

Andrew Crosse 17 June 1784 – 6 July 1855

Andrew Cross 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. He was the first son of Richard Crosse and Susannah Porter. After early education by tutors, he was sent to boarding school in Brist ol in 1792. 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 o f which was on the subject of electricity. This led to his lifelong in terest in the subject.

Crosse first started experimenting with electricity during his time in the sixth form when he built a home-made Leyden jar. After leaving school, Crosse studied law at Brasenose College, Oxford. 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. He later became a magistrate.

Crosse married Mary Anne Hamilton in 1809. They had seven children together, although three died in childhood. Mary died herself in 1846, four days after Andrew’s brother, following several years of ill health. On 22 July 1850, Crosse was married again, aged 66, to 23-year old Cornelia Augusta Hewett Berkeley. They went on to have three children together.

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 extens ive apparatus for examining the electricity of the atmosphere” incorporating, at one point, an insulated wire some 1.25 miles (2.01 km) long, later shortened to 1,800 feet (550 m), 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 Singer’s Elements of Electricity and Electro-Chemistry.

Along with Sir Humphry Davy (who 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 sq m) of coated surface. Using his wires, he was able to charge and discharge it some 20 times a minute, “accompanied by reports almost as lo ud as those of a cannon”. Owing 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 separate copper successfully from its ores using electrolysis, experimented with the electrolysis of sea water, wine and brandy, and examined the effect of electricity on vegetation. He was also interested in the practical uses of electricity and magnetism, including the development of loudspeakers and telegraphy.

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 else where 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 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.

Among his other interests, Crosse also wrote a great deal of poetry and enjoyed walking on the Quantock Hills, in which Fyne Court is set, ‘at all hours of day and night, in all seasons’. He also took a keen interest in nature and the local geology. Politically, Crosse advocated the benefits of education for the lower classes, argued against emigration, and supported the campaign by local farmers against falling food prices and high taxes during the 1820s. He was also active in party politics, speaking in support of friends at election rallies.

Crosse suffered a stroke in May 1855. and he died on 6 July 1855. A memorial is in the churchyard at Broomfield.

The main hall of Fyne Court burnt down in 1894. The remaining buildings and park are in the care of the National Trust.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography : Wikipedia

See also Crosse Connections

A P Woolrich & Dr P E Cattermole (Ed.) 28 February 2013