The Life of Sir William Crookes

When William Crookes was asked to be August Wilhelm von Hoffmann’s own personal assistant, a definite turning point was reached. It was one which forever sealed his fortune. William so impressed the master chemist with his innate and intuitive laboratory skills, that he was soon invited to attend lectures at the Royal Institution. There, young William heard presentations by the most eminent scientific explorers of his day, a profusion of diverse topics. The meetings introduced him to an innermost circle of the scientific world. The prodigious honor was excelled only by an unforgettable meeting. How wonderful it was that William Crookes met the great Michael Faraday himself!

Faraday sought William out from the crowd, a rare and humbling experience. Faraday had kind eyes, but spoke with a clear and forthright voice. He had heard much of the young man, and saw much of his own life in William. He strictly encouraged the young man to take up the pioneering study of chemical spectroscopy, promising him that the greatest new chemical discoveries would there be made. William took that advice as from a master. Years later his prophecy would be fulfilled. Time had passed indeed.

Having thus recalled the great Michael Faraday, a bookbinder who virtually established the world fame of the Royal Society, Sir William added a few words in the way of tribute. “The great philosopher’s lecture on Radiant Matter was given in 1816, when Faraday was twenty four years old.” Remarkable! Faraday preceded every major scientific revolution by sixty years. He called for the lights. Were there, he wondered, any young hearts out in the audience of similar affections and intuitive skills? Were there any fervent and curious minds out there? But his eyes scanned about the room, spying out only those whose dispassionate expressions betrayed only a singular disinterest.

There was a time in which he had become angry with the exceptional lack of vitality among certain Society appointees, but gradually grew to understand this as characteristic of the aristocracy. The bored deportment of most who sat in the audience may have been the direct result of patronage and breeding, but was certainly not the result of artistic fervor and scientific temperament. These were the sons of patrons and traditional families, who merely occupied their elected posts. It was they who, through effete vanity usually obstructed the discussion portion of the Society Proceedings with antagonistic interruptions; although such questions were designed merely to reemphasize jurisdiction over the Society.

Of the illustrious Society and its message to the world at large, they seemed utterly incapable of offering anything in the way of adornment or enrichment. Sleek and self-composed, there was nothing in the way of scholarship in all their thoughts. There was no spark of curiosity, no scientific life in them. No love, no necessity to learn, to excel and advance. One heard the dour temperament in the affected congestions of their speech. Smug, arrogant, implacable, and reprehensible, he knew who they were very well. And while he would do his best to dissolve away that critical and elitist air with his animated bravado, he did recall his first hurtful encounters with the gentry.


The path of his life had produced a glory, but it had not been an easy journey. The long night hours, the dusty volumes, the long thought trails. These were internal struggles which evoked the deepest personal transformations. The enrichments of knowledge required a demanding discipline which could never be ill-spoken. The exhaustion of his effort and much labor was not without its wonderful reward, its divine response. One became radiant only after having endured “the process.” The dreams, hopes, failures, achievements. ..all those trials and errors formed a unique tapestry, whose current and flood required a unique willingness to press forward. Few of his elite schoolmates were willing to abide the discomforts of such intense desire for even a moment.

Class distinctions were very much alive and active in that day. It still is. Their repugnant and smug misuse of all others had a dubious distinction. It was world-famous! William recalled well the manner in which the aristocrats had never accepted his father. The status which they proscribed to him was that of a mere servant, whose talents and abilities were viewed as a resource for their personal service. Despite his wealth and dignified stature, the aged Mr. Crookes was never allowed into the inner confidences of that upperclass.

This mistreatment extended to young William. He had sensed it all around him in the College. There were those whose presence in the lecture halls had nothing to do with scientific passion, nothing at all to do with the need to learn. But there they were. In addition to this effrontery, he was often excluded from their social clusters. Since his father was a tailor, this was considered a mark of fundamental division, a blot on their potential social registration.

But William was indignant of these self indulgent traditions. He bore his father’s station as the greatest mark of honor. He espoused his father’s teaching, and taught his own children that only in prayerful effort and impassioned endeavor true greatness was won. Great men were made, not born. He would rise above his detractors in avenues, perhaps not in elitist isolation, but in achievement. When he was scarcely twenty two years of age, he was appointed as Superintendent of the Meteorological Observatory in Radcliffe. His life had been a walk in wonders. The new appointment, a straightforward confirmation of prayer.

Within two years df this installment as Superintendent, tragedy struck. His father passed away in the night. William was crushed, the family in disarray. William, being the eldest son, was now to rear and guide his younger brothers and sisters. They would forever look to him for morale, guidance, and comfort. He would look to them for solace. It was a position for which he was admirably suited, but the loss of his father deeply affected him forever after. The fortune, to which he was heir, was wisely invested.

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