The Life of Sir William Crookes

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 unemployed, the hope of rising out of his impoverished station seemed dim. It was shortly after this sad realization that the smallest light of an opportunity twinkled for him in the distance. The children always liked this part of the story. Father repeatedly told how he had come to London, poor and humble, in hopes of earning the smallest living. Used to poverty, any work would have satisfied him. “Crookes” was an unlikely name for anyone to trust. They all laughed. But this master tailor was no twisted branch, no prodigal son. Hard work, perseverance, and prayerful diligence prevailed. Employed in a small tailor shoppe, Mr. Crookes began his routine with great thanks. He was fortunate to have secured such a position.

Soon, he was married to his second wife, Mary Scott. William, their eldest son, was born on June 17,183 2. Then the magic in their lives grew, for the elder Mr. Crookes suddenly found himself the focus of a monetary whirlwind. It was one which did not cease its spinning magic until a veritable trail of silver flooded the Crookes family purse. The small twinkling light which had brought him to London became quite a brilliant stream. From town to city. From poverty to riches. William never tired of this wonderful story, this family history. Over and over again, he turned the episodes in his heart. Once their message reached his mind, he saw them as something of a sure hope. If his father could have escaped poverty against those impossible odds, then he might also further the fortune of his life. If only the same blessings were on him, who knew where the paths would lead?

Without that inscrutable blessing, so obviously at work in his father’s life, William knew that he might never have had opportunity to study natural science. And natural science was what his heart loved best. He was thankful, grateful for all those about him. But the clock struck the hour, and the family parted until dinner once again. William was off to a day of lectures and laboratory exercises at the Royal College of Chemistry. His father’s kind eyes spoke in silent approval. William was not going to be a tailor. Just as well, he was exercising a new kind of apprenticeship. This was a new world, was it not? Was anything impossible?

William would try to do as his father had done. This sweet and golden image of sunny early days never faded in his mind. Its treasure merely withdrew at times, slipping beneath a red setting sun. The sea softly rippled with other luminous thoughts. Red luminous thoughts. The red radiance of his tubes reached their crescendo, flared more brilliantly, and Sir William felt the Lecture Hall around him. He withdrew the power, and watched the rubies sustain their individual colorations. Their afterglow was a special effect which few ever appreciated. He noted that only a few continued to radiate light. Looking out into his audience, he saw the same effect. Some faces shone more brilliantly than others. Some would not glow as brightly. Yet others would show themselves incapable of reflecting any light at all.

This reverie, known to him alone, was far too touching. He felt much humbled. How ordinary he was in comparison with most of these persons who were seated before him! He was not the son of upperclass breeding. He bore no aristocratic emblem. He had no ancient lineage to claim extraordinary right. But not one of them had the fire of light within. Not one seemed to draw radiance from the light. Yet here he stood, the son of a once-poverty stricken tailor. Here… among the rubies!


“The spectrum of red light emitted by these varieties is the same as described by Becquerel twenty years ago. There is one intense red line. ..having a wavelength of about 6895…and a few fainter lines beyond it, but they are so faint in comparison with this red line that they maybe neglected.” Indeed, only the brightest colors are noticed and prized. He recalled the day he was entered into The Royal College of Chemistry in London. It marked the episode which proved to him that blessings do not fade.

His was a biography which seemed in every aspect identical to the good fortune of another young man. Years before, the young Michael Faraday was elevated to eminence. Though a bookbinder’s apprentice, it was the exuberant love of all things scientific which first attracted Faraday to audit lectures at the Royal College. Through a similar series of encounters, Faraday met the great Humphrey Davy, and became his personal assistant.

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