Andrew Crosse: The Man Who Created Life

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by Alexander Randis

Did a little known amateur scientist by the name of Andrew Crosse discover how to create life? Did he unintentionally discover a mixture of electricity and chemicals which yielded living creatures from a lifeless compound? If he did not, then what did he achieve? As the written account of his handiwork is vivid, only the baffling and inexplicable results annoy science.

Andrew Crosse was born on June 17, 1784, into a wealthy family at Fyne Court, Broomfield, Somersetshire, England. The ancestral home of his family was Fyne Court, whose ancestors in the 17th century were granted a coat of arms. Crosse was a child prodigy who mastered ancient Greek by the age of eight. He attended Dr. Seyer’s School in Bristol in 1793, where he had an immense interest in natural science and the developing study of electricity. His father was a friend of both the scientists Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) and Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). Crosse continued his education in 1802 at Brasenose College, Oxford, as a gentlemen commoner, but he was not happy at Brase­nose. He found many of the students simple minded and unrestrained and the tutors inadequate.

The death of his mother in 1805 left him an orphan. By that time his father, sister, uncle, and two of his best friends had already passed on. Crosse retired to a lonesome life at Fyne Court, where he continued to study mineralogy, electricity, and chemistry. He became friendly with George Singer, who was anthologizing his book Elements of Electricity and ElectroChemistry, published in 1814.

Crystal Formation

Beginning in 1807, Crosse experimented in the formation of crystals through the action of electrical currents. The incentive for this type of research was the study of the formation of stalagmites and stalactites in Holywell Cavern at Broomfield. Crosse took some water from Holywell Cavern and linked it to the poles of a voltaic battery. Crosse observed the formation of crystals after ten days. This experiment was a predecessor of an amplification 30 years later when Crosse claimed to have observed the production of insect life through electrocrystallization.

In 1809, Crosse married Mary Anne Hamilton, and within ten years they had seven children, three of whom died in childbirth. Crosse’s friend Singer also passed away in 1817, only three years after his book on electricity was published. Crosse became more and more secluded from the world and devoted himself to his scientific research.

Sinister Reputation

The neighbors of Andrew Crosse considered him more devil than man. They did not understand the bright flashes in his laboratory windows at night when he was working with his unrefined electrical equipment. He constructed a mile and a quarter of copper wires on poles at Fyne Court, connected to his “electrical room,” where he experimented on the nature and amount of electricity in the atmosphere. Not only was he greatly feared and avoided by the local residents as “the thunder and lighting man” and “the Wizard of the Quantocks” (the nearby Quantock Hills),  but he was also condemned openly as an atheist, a blasphemer, and a mad scientist who would best be put in chains for the common safety of the community.

Andrew Crosse was a passionate amateur experimenter in the new field of electricity. He did not communicate with others in the same field, so he worked with two things against him. First, he did not exactly understand what he was doing himself, and second, he did not know what had already been done in the field of electricity.

As Frank Edwards wrote in Stranger Than Science, “Yet it may have been this very lack of knowledge which led him to undertake the experiments which were to inscribe his name, however faintly, in the annals of science.”

In 1814, when Crosse was 30, he presented a lecture on his experiments, and there is a strong possibility that it was attended by the poet Shelley and by his future wife Mary. If this is true, then it may have inspired Mary to write her famous novel Frankenstein in 1816, and there would be some vindication for portraying Crosse, as one modern biographer has written, as “the man who was Frankenstein.”

It would be 21 years after Mary Shelley had written Frankenstein that Crosse did those experiments that were to make his name infamous everywhere in Europe, and which as a result Crosse was entered in the Dictionary of National Biography. He was trying nothing more aspiring than to create crystals of silica. Thirty years earlier, he had sent an electric current through water that came from a cavern filled to utmost capacity with stalactites and stalagmites, and been overjoyed when crystals of calcium carbonate (of which stalagmites are produced) formed on one of the electrodes.

Little Bugs

In 1837 he desired to make crystals of natural glass. Colin and Damon Wilson wrote in The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Mysteries, “So he made glass out of ground flint and potassium carbonate, and dissolved it in hydrochloric acid. His idea was then to allow this fluid to drip, little by little, through a lump of porous stone which had been electrified by a battery, and to see whether it formed crystals. It did not.

However, after two weeks, he observed that something odd was happening to the lump of red-colored stone (it was, in fact, a piece of iron oxide from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, chosen merely because it was porous). Little white nipples began to stick out of it. Then the ‘nipples’ began to grow tiny hairs, or filaments. They looked oddly like tiny insects, but Crosse knew this was impossible. On the 28th day, he went into his laboratory and examined the rock through a magnifying glass, and was staggered to see that the filaments were moving around. And after a few more days there could be no possible doubt. The tiny creatures were walking around. Under a microscope, he could see that they were little bugs, and that the small ones had six legs and the larger ones had eight.

All of this was very bizarre. Crosse thought perhaps insect eggs had contaminated his controlled experiment, so he decided to give it another try. This time he carefully controlled the influence of outside conditions.

In this experiment, Crosse used airtight containers. Before the experiment began, all the material was completely sterilized using hot alcohol. The electrical wire passed into the sealed container through a glass stopper. The glass was constructed at a temperature that would melt iron, and distilled water was used to mix the ingredients, consisting of copper nitrate, copper sulfate, and iron sulfate. At last, the battery was connected and the slow dripping process started. Within a few months, Crosse once again observed insect-like creatures crawling about inside the regulated environment. Crosse was absolutely sure that he had indeed created life. He was overjoyed with his discovery and considered the possibility that he had created life from inorganic matter.

Experiment Described

In 1837, the same year, Crosse wrote a paper for the London Electrical Society about his experiment as he perceived it.

Frank Edwards wrote in Stranger Than Science, “He wrote ‘On the fourteenth day after the commencement of this experiment, I observed through a small magnifying lens a few small whitish specks clustered around the middle of the electrified stone. Four days later these specks had doubled in size and had struck out six or eight fine filaments around each speck…the filaments longer than the hemisphere from which they projected.

“‘On the 26th day of the experiment, the objects assumed the form of perfect insects, standing erect on the bristles which were growing. Although I regarded this as most unusual I attached no singular significance to it until two days later, the 28th day of the experiment when the magnifying lens showed that these things were moving their legs. I must say now that I was quite astonished. After a few more days they detached themselves from the stone and moved about through the caustic solution.

“‘In the course of a few weeks more than a hundred of them made their appearance on the oxide iron. Under a microscope I examined them and found that the smaller ones had six legs, the larger ones had eight. Others who have examined them pronounced them to be the genus Acari, but some say they are an entirely new species.

“‘I have never ventured an opinion on the cause of their birth for the reason that I have never been able to form one. I thought they might have been airborne creatures that had drifted into the liquid and prospered, but later experiments with closed vessels, in which the ingredients had been purified in the oven, produced identical creatures; therefore, I suggest that they must originate in the electrified liquid by some process unknown to me.’”

Additional experiments showed that the minute organisms were able to reproduce themselves, but none of them survived beyond the first autumn frost. Entomologists to whom he showed the tiny entities identified them unwaveringly as ticks or mites, of the order Acari; it was even suggested to label the new species Acari crossii.

The Experiment Duplicated

Crosse wrote a report of his experiment and sent it to the London Electrical Society. A electrician named W. H. Weeks, who lived at Sandwich in Kent, was chosen to repeat Crosse’s experiment. Weeks did so and published his results in Annals of Electricity and in the Transactions of the society. Weeks had also observed the mites. Other engineers performed Crosse’s experiments and also acquired the mites.

Crosse talked of his experiments and results to a local newspaper editor, who published a friendly article in the Western Gazette. Almost immediately, Crosse’s name was known everywhere in Europe.

Crosse made a fascinating observation that most people perceived him as a magician of some sort. He was even blamed for a potato blight that ravaged the West Country that year. Clergymen declared Crosse a blasphemer and an atheist, a “reviler of our holy religion,” who had boldly set himself as a rival to God in whom he did not believe. People everywhere in Europe were shocked at Crosse’s blasphemous atrocity. Doing his best to defend himself, Crosse stated that he was a “humble and lowly reverencer of that Great Being,” and further stated that his discovery had been made by pure chance. Everything Crosse said to defend himself made no difference to scientists and the general public. People shut their doors in his face. Merchants refused to do business with him. Angry locals destroyed his fences.

Andrew Crosse understood he was walking on thin ice before the most respected scientists of his day. He was explaining an event that was completely foreign to their orthodox knowledge, and because of that he was inviting mockery. And the mockery came quickly. Charges of hoax and fraud overwhelmed him. He and his so-called insects were condemned openly as nothing more than a deception.

Later researchers, such as Alfred Smee and Henry Noad, were unable to duplicate Crosse’s results.

Amid all the controversy that his notice had created, Crosse stood helpless and alone. Even other scientists who had the same results with his experiments remained silent.

Many newspapers in February 1837 reported that Michael Faraday had duplicated Crosse’s results, but this was not true. Other writers have stated that Faraday claimed himself that he was able to duplicate the experiment and create the strange, tiny creatures. But Faraday never even performed the experiments. Other writers also state that in 1837 Crosse was defended by Faraday at the Royal Institution. But all this failed to silence the critics. By now Crosse came to believe that it was now almost impossible to make the general public knowledgeable of what he had really said and done, so he came to the conclusion that the best course of action was to simply withdraw in honorable silence.

Grim Years

The next ten years for Crosse were grim. His wife and brother were sick and both passed away in 1846. His neighbors avoided him and he was without company. He was troubled by financial problems. According to Crosse, it was not because of overspending on scientific equipment, but not keeping an eye on household expenditure which he claimed caused him to be cheated. In 1849, Crosse wrote a letter to author Harriet Martineau who wanted to write about his experiments, and he wrote sadly about himself as “surrounded by death and disease.” However in 1849, when he was 65, he went to a dinner and to his surprise sat next to a dark-haired, pretty girl in her 20s who was captivated by science and by Crosse himself. The pretty girl’s name was Cornelia Burns and she became Crosse’s second wife. Crosse’s last six years of life were fairly joyful. He had friends visit him at Fyne Court and went to visit Faraday in London.

But all was not well with Crosse. One day he explained to his wife that he believed that this world was hell, and that people are sent here because of sins done is a previous existence. (In Bernard Shaw’s play, John Bull’s Other Island, 1904, Father Keegan makes a similar statement.) At the time of Crosse’s statement, there was an intense, sudden burst of electricity in the room. This was not a sign from God scolding him for his insufficient faith, but because snow falling had caused a short circuit in some of his electrical equipment. In 1855, at the age of 71, Crosse suffered a stroke and passed away.

Extraterrestrial Insects?

The enigma of the Acari remains to this day and no answer can explain all the facts. Valentine Dyall in Unsolved Mysteries has put forward the theory that the insects may have traveled to Earth in a meteorite, a view that in modern times might have a certain amount of favor in the theories of Chandra Wickramasinghe and Fred Hoyle, who claim that life may have arrived on Earth by a meteorite. This theory perhaps could explain how the chunk of iron oxide contained eggs but could not account for how the eggs got into the other experiments. Comdr. Rupert Gould, the author of Oddities, writes about Dr. A. C. Oudemans, the authority on Acari, who said that he was satisfied by the evidence that Crosse’s bugs were the common Glycophagus domesticus, which are able to get into hermetically sealed tins. But why would these tiny creatures crawl into iron sulfate, copper nitrate, and everything else?

One of the great mysteries of science is why experiments work for some people and not for others.

Colin and Damon Wilson wrote in The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Mysteries, “In my biography of Wilhelm Reich I have described how Reich placed dry sterile hay in distilled water, and how after a day or two it was full of tiny living organisms, some even visible to the naked eye.”

Reich became convinced that he had found the basic units of life, and called them “bions.”

“Reich finally concluded,” write the Wilsons, “that his bions were not living cells but an intermediate form of life between dead and living matter. I have gone on to cite Jung’s theory of synchronicity, and of ‘exteriorization phenomena’. We know that coincidences far outside the laws of probability are everyday occurrences. Jung thought that, particularly in people of high vitality, the unconscious mind can in some unknown way engineer coincidences. ‘Exteriorization phenomena’ are phenomena caused by these unknown powers of the unconscious—in one famous story, Jung and Freud were having a heated argument about the supernatural when Jung experienced a strong feeling of heat in his diaphragm, and there was a loud explosion from the bookcase. Jung said that this was an example of ‘Exteriorization phenomena’ and Freud replied ‘Bosh.’ ‘It is not bosh’, replied Jung, ‘as you will realize in a moment when there is another explosion.’ And at that moment another explosion occurred. Jung believed that so-called Flying Saucers were a kind of exteriorization phenomena, or ‘projections’ of the unconscious. It seems possible that Reich’s bions—and his sightings of Flying Saucers—may have been in some way dependent upon his abnormally active unconscious mind.”

Mystical Experience

The Wilsons wrote, “He also had at least one semi-mystical experience. He was on his way back home from Plymouth, and stopped overnight in Exeter, feeling tired and very low. Then, according to his second wife’s account ‘he had scarcely laid upon his head, when a sudden train of thought burst upon him with such intensity, that it seemed almost like inspiration; he was not asleep, it was no dream; but yet in imagination he roamed over the universe; and beheld with the eye of fancy the unbounded glories of creation; it appeared to him, he said, as if the soul had quitted its prison of clay, and was free to reach the limits of space, or rather, to annihilate space with the intensity of its perception. Centuries of time were condensed into those moments of ecstatic life, and Nature’s laws seemed clear to the omniscience of its glance; a sense of blessedness sustained him—he felt immortal.”

But this particular Jungian theory fails as the two other theories fail. If the Acari were created by an unusual active unconscious mind, then why were other scientists able to produce the Acari? Reich would probably reply that the other scientists could produce the Acari because Crosse had discovered the secret of producing bions, which have an electrical charge and are drawn to the cathode or anode, and that the bions actually turned into elementary life forms.

Crosse never wrote or said that he had discovered anything. All he was doing was reporting what happened in his experiments. After the attacks upon him diminished, he retired to his home in the Quantock Hills for many more years among his batteries and his test tubes.

Scientists to this day are puzzled as to what Crosse discovered. Some scientists believe the Acari were Glyophagus Domesticus, an insect which seems to remain alive in any conditions. Others maintain that Crosse merely created chemical constituents which took the appearance of something living. Critics contend that some sort of contamination had occurred and the tiny creatures must have been some sort of common insect.

As is often the case, time has obscured the precise procedure needed to perform this experiment successfully. Therefore we may never know how and why the tiny creatures were created or if they ever were created. However, could it have been conceivable that Crosse by chance discovered the primordial soup that evolutionists theorize was needed to created the world’s first life form?

Still Unexplained

Even today scientists cannot explain away the Acari that were perhaps created by Crosse. It is interesting that no scientist is even willing to reproduce the intriguing 19th-century experiment.

Crosse lived his long life as a meek researcher after scientific truths. The phenomenon for which he is remembered is the controversy about his Acari, uninvited then, a mystery to this day.

Read this and other great stories in the January/February 2011 of FATE! Purchase the e-edition here.

Alexander Randis is a freelance writer who explores the strange and unknown. His writings have been published in Atlantis Rising.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons