Andrew Crosse: poet, naturalist, and creator of insects born of electricty and minerals
March 10, 2011 2:39 PM   Subscribe

Andrew Crosse (June 17, 1784 – July 6, 1855) was a British poet, naturalist, local magistrate, and "gentleman scientist" who may or may not have created life in an electrocrystallization experiment. [Post inspired by TheophileEscargot on MetaChat]

Crosse spent much of his life at Fyne Court, in the English countryside. Cross was a child prodigy with a wealthy family, and he had been fascinated with electricity from a young age. His fascination became the topic of folklore, as the superstitious locals would watch the forks of lightning dancing about on the copper cables that Crosse had spread out from his laboratory, in an effort to power his electrical experiments.

One such series of experiments was in the creation of crystals, which interested Crosse after had visited Holwell Cave and marveled at the proliferation of aragonite crystals, which he first thought were drawn upward by "electric attraction," according to his memorial (written by himself and his wife). He tried to capture the cave in poetry, and in his laboratory.

His goal of forming artificial minerals through "prolonged electric action" was successful as he created 24 electrocrystallized minerals. For these works, Crosse gained renown as an outstanding scientist, to the point becoming an interesting subject for the local paper. A local printer and publisher visited Crosse around the time of an unusual result from his electrocrystallization experiments. The publisher printed news of this miracle, both for publicity of the paper, and to give Andrew Crosse credit for his creation or discovery. That unusual finding was officially presented in 1838 in the Annals of Electricity, Magnetism, & Chemistry:
On the 14th day from the commencement of the experiment, I observed, through a lens, a few small white excrescences or nipples projecting from about the middle of the electrified stone, and nearly under the dropping of the fluid above. On the 18th day, these projections enlarged, and 7 or 8 filaments, each of them longer than the excrescence from which t grew, made their appearance on each of the nipples. On the 22nd day, these appearances were more elevated and distinct, and on the 26th day, each figure 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 any other than an incipient mineral formation; but it was not until the 28th day, when I plainly perceived these little creatures move their legs, that I felt any surprise, and I must own that when this took place, I was not a little astonished.
With this discovery or creation of life, Crosse found unwanted fame and a place amongst "modern Frankensteins" (though Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published in 1818). Crosse was called many names and assumed to be playing God, but his comments to a reporter clarified his view of his actions as mere chance, and only "the Almighty" can truly create or annihilate something. People have attempted to re-create the experiment, and Michael Faraday claimed he saw similar appearances in his experiments, and surgeon and natural philosopher William Henry Weekes reportedly repeated the experiment, though Weeke's attempt took over a year before insects appeared.

Crosse had effectively been cut off from the scientific community due scrutiny over the experiment that brought Acari crossi (also named Acari electricus) to life, but he continued to experiment. The day before his death, he tried his final experiment. He died at his life-long home, with his wife by his side.

Related: Song for Andrew Cross, "for when the salt sprouts legs and walks away" -- a song by MeFite at the crossroads
posted by filthy light thief (5 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Jesus, ever since that Mountains of Madness post yesterday, everything around here is Lovecraft, Lovecraft, Lovecraft.
posted by Naberius at 3:07 PM on March 10, 2011

I often forget how young photography is, relatively speaking. I was hoping for some photo of the mites through a microscope, but photography was only 10 years old in 1836, and took quite a while for photograph to be captured. Lovecraftian drawings is all we have of Acari crossi.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:48 PM on March 10, 2011

posted by steef at 5:24 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've been so wrapped up in the news from Wisconsin that I haven't had time to give this the attention it deserves, but it looks fantastic. Thanks for the post-- bookmarked.
posted by jokeefe at 11:03 PM on March 10, 2011

Okay, I guess I am ready to address this post now.

When I first saw this was about Andrew Crosse I was a bit taken aback.
"Oh, ummph!"-- air knocked out of me. Like that.

I was surprised, delighted, stunned. I couldn't respond right away. I needed some time.
I read through his Memoirs until I got distracted--
I got stuck to the tsunami thread and I ached for everyone involved there.


Several years ago I was vacationing in a resort town called Seaside, Oregon.
The little library there is great. You can walk straight in and sign yourself up on a clip-board and they will let you use their computers for free! One hour. There was a box of golf pencils next to the clip-board. The thing is, you have to wait your turn. So sometimes, if you time it badly, you must wait for 59 minutes until the person ahead of you is done. Usually though, it was faster than that, 5 or 10 minutes--- you see where I am going here.

One day, I timed it badly. Waiting, I wandered the stacks nosing about, flipping through books, poems and short stories, until I read this:

(paraphrase) "Secrets of Science: Andrew Crosse, trying to invent silica batteries, put an electric current in jars of salt water and he observed nipples growing on iron legs becoming insects."

. . . - - - . . .

Fast forward. Five or six years in the future. I am not vacationing in Oregon anymore. I look in other libraries when I am bored, waiting, but nothing is fruitful.

I write a little song for Andrew Crosse. I post it to the web.

. . . - - - . . .

Nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing is happening and then all of a sudden

Thank you for this post you filthy light thief.

The salt sprouts legs and walks away.
posted by at the crossroads at 1:55 AM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

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