Gentleman Scientist Andrew Crosse's Extraordinary Experiment

Wikimedia Commons / Erin McCarthy
Wikimedia Commons / Erin McCarthy / Wikimedia Commons / Erin McCarthy

Andrew Crosse was not well liked by his neighbors, and things only got worse when the bugs appeared.

The Crosses were a wealthy, respectable family with famous friends (patriarch Richard rubbed elbows with the likes of Joseph Priestley and Ben Franklin) and a small estate, called Fyne Court, in Somerset, England. Their first son Andrew was born there in 1784 and showed promise at an early age. He learned to read ancient Greek by the age of eight and, while in school, developed an interest in the developing study of electricity. Despite his fascination with science and encouragement from his parents, he took a more conventional path and enrolled in law school. 

By the time he turned 21, though, both of Andrew’s parents had died and he abandoned his law career to take care of the family lands and pursue scientific research on his own time as a “gentleman scientist.” He set up a lab in the house and constructed various electrical apparatuses, including “voltaic batteries of all forms, sizes, and extents” that “resembled battalions of soldiers in exact rank and file, and seemed innumerable” and a third of a mile of copper wire strung along trees and poles around the estate. 

A visitor to Fyne Court at the time described the house’s philosophical-room-turned-laboratory like this:

Here was an immense number of jars and gallipots, containing fluids on which electricity was operating for the production of crystals. 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 thousand-fold more powerful than all those the room strung together. You follow his hasty steps to the organ-gallery, and curiously approach the spot whence the noise 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, rap--bang, bang, bang…Nevertheless, your host does not fear. He approaches as boldly as if the flowing stream of fire were a harmless spark.

Most of Crosse’s electrical experiments were not subtle. Sparks and flashes of light could be seen in his windows at night, and a large battery he built could be charged and discharged 20 times in a minute, "accompanied by reports almost as loud as those of a cannon.” He gained a reputation among his neighbors as a weirdo and mad scientist, and was known locally as the “thunder and lightning man.” It was a much quieter experiment, though, that turned out to be the most controversial, and made Crosse infamous.  

“A Perfect Insect”

One of Crosse’s other interests was mineralogy, particularly the formation of crystals in caves. In one experiment, he tried to form artificial crystals by dripping a solution of potassium silicate and hydrochloric acid—electrified with a current from one of his batteries—over a porous stone.

In 1836, a few weeks into the experiment, Crosse noticed something strange.

“On the fourteenth day from the commencement of this experiment I observed through a lens a few small whitish excrescences or nipples, projecting from about the middle of the electrified stone,” he wrote. “On the eighteenth day these projections enlarged, and struck out seven or eight filaments, each of them longer than the hemisphere on which they grew. ... On the twenty-sixth day these appearances assumed the form of a perfect insect, standing erect on a few bristles which formed its tail. Till this period I had no notion that these appearances were other than an incipient mineral formation. On the twenty-eighth day these little creatures moved their legs. I must now say that I was not a little astonished. After a few days they detached themselves from the stone, and moved about at pleasure.”

Over the next few weeks, more than a hundred of the bugs appeared and, after consulting with biologists, Crosse concluded they were mites of the genus Acarus. “There appears to be a difference of opinion as to whether they are a known species,” Crosse wrote.

Whatever they were, he could not explain how they appeared. At first, he assumed that the experiment had simply been contaminated and the insects’ eggs were hidden in his equipment or the stone, waiting to hatch. When he examined his materials and replicated the experiment with equipment that had been cleaned, purified, and sealed, though, the mites appeared again.

After that, he was at a loss to explain them, and not too proud to say so. “I have never ventured an opinion on the cause of their birth, and for a very good reason—I was unable to form one,” he wrote. And in his report of the experiment to the London Electrical Society, he only offered that, “I suggest that they [the insects] must originate in the electrified liquid by some process unknown to me.”

As he told his friends about this bizarre discovery, Crosse’s story got twisted. As his second wife recalled, “he chanced to name the matter in the presence of the editor of a West of England paper, who immediately, unauthorised, but in a very friendly spirit, published an account of the experiment; which account quickly flew over England, and indeed Europe.” As the story spread, some people got the idea that Crosse had created the insects or at claimed to have done so, despite his protests. Soon, he was faced, said his wife, with a “host of bitter and equally unreasoning assailants, whose personal attacks on Mr. Crosse, and their misrepresentations of his views, were at once ridiculous and annoying.” He received hate mail and death threats calling him a "disturber of the peace of families" and a “reviler of our holy religion,” and was accused in a local newspaper of causing the blight that had struck nearby farms.

“Mr. Crosse's answer was very characteristic,” his wife wrote. “After disavowing all intention to raise any questions connected with either natural or revealed religion, he went on to observe that he was sorry to see that the faith of his neighbours could be overset by the claw of a mite.” 

Life from a Stone?

Other scientists were soon drawn into the controversy, and repeated Crosse’s experiment with mixed results. While some of them were able to reproduce the Acari, others failed to find any insects. Crosse, meanwhile, withdrew from the public debate about the experiment and secluded himself at Fyne Court to continue his research, venturing out to only the less publicized meetings of the scientific societies he belonged to. On May 26, 1855, he had a stroke and died in the same room he had been born in. 

After Crosse’s death, his “perfect insects” remained an open question. The most likely explanation, later scientists offered, was that his instruments were indeed contaminated, and the replicators who also found the mites had likewise failed to fully clean or seal their experiments. Crosse acknowledged later in his life that “there is considerable similitude between the first stages of the birth of acari and of certain mineral crystallisations electrically produced,” so it’s also possible that he simply mistook crystal formations for insects.

Crosse’s reputation as a mad scientist and the controversy surrounding his “playing God” later led to the claim that he inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, but his discovery of the mites came well after the book was published. And while he did give a public lecture about his research on atmospheric electricity before the novel was written, Shelley’s attendance there hasn’t been proven. Either way, Crosse had little in common with Shelley’s character and harbored no illusions that he could create life. “I have never in thought, word, or deed, given one a right to suppose that I considered them [the insects] as a creation, or even as a formation, from inorganic matter,” he wrote. “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…It was a matter of chance. I was looking for silicious formations, and animal matter appeared instead.”