The Life of Sir William Crookes

He had learned a great deal from the German chemist, Dr. August Wilhelm von Hoffmann. It was with Dr. Hoffmann that William saw the value of every new scientific find. Von Hoffmann viewed each stray scientific fact and phenomenon as of paramount importance.

Every natural effect was observed and valued. Each was aggressively scrutinized as if it alone held some new secret to an entire world of industrial potentials. Crookes saw the validation of ideals which Faraday had quietly cherished. It was in the employ of von Hoffmann that William Crookes learned the German ethic of free enterprise firsthand.

He understood that German attitudes were not at all like the British ones in terms of class and stature, a surprising and strangely comforting discovery. The traditional system of dialogue between all classes, professions, and occupations, became the essential secret of Nineteenth Century German Technology. Lines of communications were opened to all for the good of all. This became too evident before 1870. In the meteoric development of chemical process and metallurgical applications, Germany had no equal in all of Europe. This was dangerous, and Crookes did not lightly esteem the imbalance of power in Europe. But his subsequent accomplishments had several trenchant motives, not the least of which was an importation of the German scientific ideal. One was the expansion of the working class ethic, and the extension of their rights in the realm. Another was the simple undoing of the aristocratic element in the scientific circles. Their obstructive influences had diminished every scientific revolution which defied their aesthetic. And what was their aesthetic? The methodical elimination of working class aspirations.

Restricting, limiting, and diminishing this dream potential among the lower classes was first achieved by restricting attendance in higher learning institutions. This rule also diminished the chance that working class persons would rise, if in mind only. This aristocratic rulership of knowledge was also the principle reason why Vitalism was so deeply despised among the British scientific aristocracy. But such knowledge as William was amassing through his potent expertise was neither going to be restricted or exploited by the rigid British structure on any level. Here he drew the line. The secret was contained in a simple notion: seek out the most obscure and strategic facts. Consolidate every bit of knowledge in that field of study. Prioritize the knowledge.

“In the practical world, fortunes have been realized from the careful examination of what has been ignorantly thrown aside as refuse; no less, in the Sphere of Science, are reputations to be made in the patient investigation of anomalies.”


[Crookes’s] astute enterprising aims had as their first order of priority a self sufficiency without aristocratic rule or restriction. He would be independent and self-employed. “Owe no man anything” was the lesson. As his father was successful in the art of tailor craft, so he would reach independent success in the scientific profession. Von Hoffmann had been a good and thorough master. He taught him well by example, and had highly favored and encouraged William. I am sure he insisted on calling him “Wilhelm.” In the isolation and efficient production of new chemical substances, there were new fortunes to be made.

William Crookes saw that this theme and atmosphere so contributed to the German industrial power base that to deny it was foolhardy. Worse, it might someday prove deadly. Competitive Germany had thoroughly recognized these scientific potentials, and were quick to implement every fruit of technical achievement. His strong opinion was contained in the notion that scientific labor should be justly and amply rewarded. Valuable scientific knowledge was not a free tithe, no mere resource. His nation needed to implement the free enterprise theme as rapidly as possible.

Exploitation was no longer to be tolerated. The German approach did not prohibit the exchange of information between and among persons of different class. Not so in England, where scientists and their technologies were viewed by royalty as exploitable resource for the personal extension of profit and power. By the end of the same decade, Germany would outstrip the English industrial facility on several key grounds. By the time the aristocrats were roused from their self deceiving slumber of peace, the whole of Great Britain had been shaken to its patristic roots.

Throughout the early history of this laboratory, Dr. William Crookes devoted himself to the discovery of industrial applications. The industrial production of new products was his aim, but this goal did not prevent him from exploring the natural world of chemistry. He was forever investigating new families of chemical substances which might prove in the future to be of strategic industrial importance. This native curiosity permitted him to be first in the discovery of new elements, compounds, and their possible use in some burgeoning industrial complex. In 1859 he initiated and directed the publication of The Chemical News, a scholarly journal whose aim it was to stimulate both the professional and amateur chemists into a new industrial revolution. He remained its principle editor for several years.

Serious theoretical and industrial information thus flowed from him and to him. The flow of such material was timely. In this theme and approach, Dr. Crookes explored the strange properties of selenium, a new “light sensing” element. The year was 1861, and selenium was the focus of several intriguing discoveries. Photoelectric effects were observed, and the extreme sensitivity of selenium to various spectra promised new industrial frontiers. It would therefore be imperative to be the principle provider of information on the topic area. In the eventuality of new applications, industrialists would want ready information on the manufacture of selenium components. William was always in the lead, especially when the more mystifying aspects of Nature made themselves apparent.

His intuitions were well rewarded when, in the next decade, selenium became the principle means by which certain highly desirable electrical analyzing instruments were made possible. In the process of studying selenium, William succeeded in discovering a new element. The element thallium was discovered in 1861, the result of a spectroscopic study. He recognized its unique strong green spectral line. Here was the word which Faraday himself had spoken. Here was the rarest of privileges, an honor granted to a very few individuals. How curious and fortunate that he had been chosen to assume such an exalted scientific poise in science history!

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