The Life of Sir William Crookes

The discovery had its industrial merits. Lucrative merits. Poisonous metallic thallium, a bluish-white element, was utilized as a catalyst in the industrial manufacture of benzene and antiknock fuels. In its other chemical uses, thallium found prime application in the manufacture of flint, glass, artificial gems, scientific thermometers, mineralogical washing solutions, and pyrotechnics. In the following years Dr. Crookes developed sodium amalgamation methods for the commercial extraction of gold and silver from crushed ores, devised laboratory-worthy spectrum microscopes and polarization photometers, compiled planetary and stellar spectra, perfected astronomical photography, and hunted for new planets and asteroids.

So it was, in 1863, Dr. Crookes was elected to the Royal Society as a Fellow.


It was while investigating certain properties of thallium in vacuum (1873) that he chanced to observe a unique motional effect in a delicate torsion balance. The mere presence of light, whether from the sun or an artificial source, made impossible the routine task of weighing the element in vacuum. Dr. Crookes saw that, as soon as light was admitted into his balancing apparatus, the delicate device moved quite violently. In some cases, the torsion balance struck its containment walls. The mere presence of light so destabilized the delicate quartz fiber of his torsion balance, that he paused from this chemical study.

With external sources of illumination, he found that vacua of 40 millionths atmosphere allowed the most powerful rotation in the vanes. With internal sources of radiant heat, he found it possible to obtain much stronger rotations. These were observed (over 30 rotations per second) in hydrogen gas at 0.1 millionth atmospheres…a remarkable figure! The observation of movements with vanes coated on both sides in lampblack. . .a complete conundrum.. .could find few good explanations. Nor could the mechanistic theory attempt adequate explanation of the other numerous anomalies found in his study.

Deeper inquiry into the “mechanical action of light” led to a minor upheaval in the world of physics. The philosophical debate which discussed the “light pressure” remained a focal point for years, since a reversal of theoretical expectations was obtained. The fundamental anomaly which Dr. Crookes and others observed was that “light pressure” caused the repulsion of dark bodies, and the attraction of reflective bodies. This basic riddle occupied the thoughts of many physicists for several years. Dr. Crookes published his findings in a long series of articles and scientific essays; where the variables of vacuum, substance, vane shape, even or uneven surface heating, and applied spectral energy were each studied with the utmost care. (The complete record of his meticulous research may be obtained in collated form a. DeMeo).

As regard to the anomalies which he observed, Dr. Crookes was bold and decisive. “In some of the observations, the results accorded with theory; and although I could explain most of the anomalies, there were irregularities which seemed to point to another influence…” Another influence? To what influence did he possibly refer? He had eliminated all of the mechanistic variables with elaborate shields and baffles. In fact, these inconsistencies were never solved and, with attempts to give answer according to the mechanistic theory, were entirely unsatisfactory.

The prevailing view among physicists was that the opposite vane rotations and other behaviors were all the result of molecular bombardments within the glass bulb. Varieties of mechanical dynamics (gaseous flow, viscosity, “creep,” recoil) along vane surfaces were cited in explanation of each anomalies. But each such puzzle required new and (sometimes self-contradicting) applications of the mechanical principles. The glaring inability to provide satisfactory explanations for key phenomena lent an increasing number of scholars to assail the mechanistic view itself. Accusations of the obvious deficiency in this view, especially in explaining the newly discovered phenomena of the day, represented the first in a series of major failures.

The mechanistic view was shown to be inadequate in such cases as regards various phenomena of light and other radiant forms. The trend to save “mechanism” continued through the Twentieth Century. Renewed interest in this episode of scientific inadequacy has evoked response from several researchers such as Dr. James DeMeo. This esteemed researcher and author considers the strong likelihood that such anomalies are entirely due to more vitalistic influences. The possibility that the anomalous results of Crookes were entirely derived from external influence of his own presence (i.e. of biological energy) has provided the most potent reevaluation of the phenomenon to date.


In all of these important considerations we see that the mechanistic view and its explanations usually results from highly valued topical effects of least importance, caused by more dominant fundamental energies of Nature. Yet it is well known that Sir William inclined more toward these vitalistic possibilities, having observed motions on his own approach to the device. And, while never publishing his deeper inclinations on these issues, it is known that his study of paranormal forces were commendable in his employ of numerous sensitive apparatus.. .not the least of which was his Radiometer.

The debate on these “light pressure” anomalies prompted Dr. Crookes to bring the effect out of the academic halls and into the public forum. His development of the Radiometer for serious scientific use was a matter of scientific record. But this serious application did not limit his wonderful imagination from teaching children of its marvels. So delightful was the Radiometer, or “light mill” as he often called it, that an inexpensive version was developed for toy shoppes. The small scientific “toy” has remained both a curiosity and amusement since its first appearance. Of it Nikola Tesla gave fond homage, referring to the delicate design as “the jewel of motors.”

This first of many such “toys” became a distinct Crookes trademark, an ultimate “soft” vengeance. “In this realm of marvels, this wonderland toward which scientific enquiry is sending out its pioneers, can anything be more astonishing than the delicacy of the instrumental aids which the workers bring with them?” Dr. Crookes was relentless in his provocation of the scientific aristocracy. His deliberate conception and deployment of a great many such “toys” was directed at their fancies. He would haunt both them and their children.. with scientific “amusements” and “toys.” Crookes was the great scientific toy maker, but delighted in presenting them to those who would acquire them as curiosities.

Tagged on: , , , ,