The Life of Sir William Crookes

“Nothing can be more beautiful than the effect presented by a mass of rough rubies when glowing in a vacuum.” As the current was silently applied, the entire large ovoid globe became a dazzling red light. “They shine as if they were red-hot.” The color permeated the room. “In this tube of rubies, there are stones of all colors… the deeper red and the pale pink… but under the impact of Radiant Matter they all phosphoresce with the same color.”

VERMILION

Rubies. Collections of rubies. He looked out into the crowd from his place behind the table. All faces were clearly seen in that red radiance. Each reflected back varying degrees of that pure and deep vermilion light. As he observed this remarkable effect on the face of his audience, he thought aloud. “It scarcely matters what color the ruby is to begin with …under the impact of Radiant Matter, they all phosphoresce.” Some managed to derive from that phrase deep meaning. There were those who long lingered on that phrase, for it taught a multitude of lessons quite all at once. This was the remarkable manner and style of Sir William. He always managed to speak on several simultaneous levels. On one level, there were the scientific revelations. On another, the social implications. On yet another, the personal revelations. What was it about his personality or subject matter which permitted this astounding juncture of consciousness?

The deep light of his rubies flared into a deeper and more brilliant light. The wonder of his life was not unlike these wonderful glowing tubes. He had come out of the darkness, out of a peculiar class vacuum, was touched by some thrilling and inscrutable energy, and became suddenly radiant! And here he was, as so many previous appointments had invited, standing and lecturing to the Royal Society. How had it happened, that he of all people was granted such favor as to be elevated to his present station?

Between the thoughts which were now flooding the hall, between the lines of his lecture, between the strokes of a second hand, he quietly turned his gaze to the radiant rubies for another look. Just then, just as he paused to gaze into the deep red light of his ruby tube before opening the switch, Sir William looked into another world. A window suddenly opened to him, and he looked in. The innocence of his childhood was always close to the surface. He recalled how his mother would called to him from the lower floors of childhood’s home. He had been wondering at the morning sunlight far too long, gazing out at an upper windowpane. The other younger children had already surrounded the kitchen table and were awaiting his presence.

Seated and ready for morning prayers, breakfast, kindly admonitions, and school, the family waited for the eldest son to take his place. As William quickly arrived, it seemed to him that the entire household was full of light. Light was everywhere, or was it just an afterimage? Seated near his father, and casting his gaze all around him, he saw the light glowing in his little brothers and sisters. No, he was sure. This was no disappointing afterimage. This was the light of life, and it merged with the sunshine in a most remarkable way.

William loved to hear his father’s many accounts. His father was something of a wonder, a life filled with a hundred episodes. Those were the days when families sat at table together, respectfully hearing the tales and admonitions of their elders. Each of his father’s stories had their distinctly miraculous tone. The chapters in his life read less than that of a poor tailor from the country, and more like the chronicle of a minor prophet. His father was born of poor parents, a misfortune at any time in English history. In England, being born in poverty, meant that one died in poverty. There were no informal means for achieving some kind of social mobility in the rigid caste system. No mobility whatsoever, except for the occasional “accidents.” And the elder Joseph Crookes certainly attested to these, although he never believed in the “accident” of a divine blessing.

Out of poverty, in some inexplicable manner, his father was fortunately apprenticed to a master tailor who lived in his township. In time, Mr. Crookes also successfully acquired the title of master tailor. Yet Rubies. Collections of rubies. He looked out into the crowd from his place behind the table. All faces were clearly seen in that red radiance. Each reflected back varying degrees of that pure and deep vermilion light. As he observed this remarkable effect on the face of his audience, he thought aloud. “It scarcely matters what color the ruby is to begin with …under the impact of Radiant Matter, they all phosphoresce.” Some managed to derive from that phrase deep meaning.

There were those who long lingered on that phrase, for it taught a multitude of lessons quite all at once. This was the remarkable manner and style of Sir William. He always managed to speak on several simultaneous levels. On one level, there were the scientific revelations. On another, the social implications. On yet another, the personal revelations. What was it about his personality or subject matter which permitted this astounding juncture of consciousness?

The deep light of his rubies flared into a deeper and more brilliant light. The wonder of his life was not unlike these wonderful glowing tubes. He had come out of the darkness, out of a peculiar class vacuum, was touched by some thrilling and inscrutable energy, and became suddenly radiant! And here he was, as so many previous appointments had invited, standing and lecturing to the Royal Society. How had it happened, that he of all people was granted such favor as to be elevated to his present station?

Between the thoughts which were now flooding the hall, between the lines of his lecture, between the strokes of a second hand, he quietly turned his gaze to the radiant rubies for another look. Just then, just as he paused to gaze into the deep red light of his ruby tube before opening the switch, Sir William looked into another world. A window suddenly opened to him, and he looked in. The innocence of his childhood was always close to the surface. He recalled how his mother would called to him from the lower floors of childhood’s home. He had been wondering at the morning sunlight far too long, gazing out at an upper windowpane. The other younger children had already surrounded the kitchen table and were awaiting his presence.

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