Experimenting With Electricity
Andrew Crosse was a 19th-century man with enough monetary means to afford to spend his time dabbling in his hobby of scientific experimentation involving electricity. Actually, it was more of an obsession than a hobby.
He built a state-of-the-art laboratory at his English countryside house and read up on similar research going on around the world.
The Results Were Not What Andrew Crosse Expected
In 1837, he began an experiment to see if he could grow crystals via a weak electric current. He set up his experiment, which consisted of a lava stone, a chemical mixture, and an electrical source, and prepared to wait. Days went by without results and Crosse was starting to become discouraged when, 28 days after the experiment began, he noticed something unexpected. In the liquid of the experiment, instead of crystals, were numerous insects, all resembling some kind of mite or tiny flea.
He naturally presumed that the stone or liquid used in the experiment had been the home of microscopic insect eggs and that the electrical stimulation had caused the eggs to hatch. Oddly, though, no eggs had been seen originally, and no shells were to be seen after the insects appeared. Containers of the same chemical liquid source showed neither insects nor eggs.
Curious, Andrew Crosse replicated the experiment using sealed containers to prevent contamination from the outside. And he was rewarded with the same result: insects easily discernable in the experiment’s containers.
He then tried the same experiment using various poisonous liquids that were known to be impossible for life to exist within. In most of these experiments, the tiny insects appeared.
It appeared that life was being created out of a rock, some chemical liquids, and a weak electrical charge.
Wondering about the meaning of all this, he contacted the London Electrical Society, to see if they could make sense of these seemingly impossible experimental results.
Unfortunately, besides the Society, newspapers quickly caught on to the story, calling this new insect Acarus Crossii and inflamed the populace into a frenzy. Crosse was labelled a blasphemer, a devil, a mere man who dared to make himself equal to the creator God by seemingly creating life out of nothing. People would flood his neighborhood to mock his work, to damage his property, or to perform exorcisms outside his home.
He would later defend himself as being equally ignorant about his own experiments and what they meant: “In fact, I assure you most sacredly that I have never dreamed of any theory sufficient to account for (the insects’) appearance. I confess that I was not a little surprised, and am so still, and quite as much as I was when the (insects) first made their appearance…. I was looking for (crystal) formations, and (insects) appeared instead….”
Other scientists would replicate the experiment and come to the same result, but they were not the target of the abuse Crosse suffered.
In addition to those outraged by the religious implications of Crosse’s experiments, other detractors stated that microscopic eggs must have been purposely deposited in the liquids and that Crosse was deliberately leading the public astray.
Crosse eventually became a virtual prisoner in his home, rarely able to appear in public without someone decrying him and his work. He died in 1855, still not knowing what, if anything, he had discovered — and still not understanding the world’s vicious reaction to his work.
The question remains: what, if anything, did Andrew Crosse discover? Apparently no modern scientists have seriously attempted to replicate his experiments, leaving us in the dark about what exactly formed in the vials and vessels of a small English laboratory 175 years ago.