The Life of Sir William Crookes

Simultaneously cunning and humorous, the designs produced for his laboratory a steady source of capital. They also accomplished their primary task of preserving the various vitalistic conundrums everywhere. Crookes was especially delighted that the aristocrats perceived these as amusing devices to purchase. With his guidance, and the “skillful manipulations of my friend, pupil, and associate, Mr. Charles H. Gimingham,” the manufacture of a vast laboratory demonstration assortment was offered to the scientific community at large. Both in England and abroad, in America, sales of these marvelous and glittering Victorian designs brought in an important steady revenue. These designs were distributed in North America by James Queen and Company, a scientific supply house based in Philadelphia.


Sir William’s scientific approach differed from the growing convention. His approach appealed to the philosophical aesthetic, rather than to the engineering theme. His demonstrations were never intended to represent miniatures for technological exploitation. In the Victorian tradition, experimental models and demonstrations represented philosophical statements. Each was made to consolidate some principle, to embody an idea. Experimental models were statements in solid form. Such devices were therefore always referred to, not as industrial appliances, but rather as “philosophical toys”; his elegant and final answer to each challenging polemic.

Sir William delighted in contriving such designs in order to provide wordless proof of each thesis. In 1877, he began his most world-renown series of researches into the discharge of high voltage electricity through spaces of very high vacuum. The automatic mercury pumps of Herman Sprengel were much improved on behalf of Dr. Crookes, again by Charles H. Gimingham (1877). It was this improvement which stimulated the new and thrilling research, since prior to this time, the reasonably attained vacua were insufficient to produce the effects which were historically first obtained by Dr. Crookes.

His first major discovery was one typical of the style and flair by which he would be best remembered. Bringing the vacuum to its ultimate degree, he observed a mysterious “dark space”. This was the metaphor which most captivated his scientific attentions, a symbol and representative of space itself. But what was in that dark space? He called again for the lights to be withdrawn. They had seen his preliminary demonstration of phosphorescence, but had they comprehended the meaning of those phenomena? Had they pierced through to his exact intimations concerning that phenomena?

Were they able to realize that no phosphorescence, no light is ever emitted unless substances are completely wrapped and permeated in a blanket of absolute darkness? Did they appreciate that every condition of earthly light was first predicated in every instance by a permeation of radiant black space? His voice again rang into the dark space of the Hall. “I will endeavor to render the ‘dark space’ visible to all present. Here is a tube having a pole in the centre in the form of a metal disk, and the other poles at each end.” The large barreled tube which he stood near on the table was fitted with a disc-shaped central cathode, facing two opposed anodes; one at each end. Current was applied.

“When the exhaustion is good and the electrical pressure is high… the dark space is seen to extend for about an inch on both sides of the cathode.” The luminous gas residue withdrew to the anodes, being tightly squeezed upon their metal surfaces. But the dark space remained. Clearly, all matter had been forced away from this space, otherwise it would be glowing with light. In the dark space were rays whose power “…radiating from the pole with enormous velocity, assume properties so novel and so characteristic as to entirely justify the application of the term borrowed from Faraday… that of Radiant Matter.”

There were those who had always mistakenly believed that his Radiant Matter was simply composed of electrons, even as J. J. Thomson had sought to prove. But Sir William could never have disagreed more. To him, the dark space was filled with “dark light,” the precursor to every form of light known to the world of physics. It was the energetic presence of this dark light which provoked the phosphorescence of any substance placed within that dark space. As he was about to prove again, the dark space was completely devoid of inert, or massive particles. He would now separate the negative charges from the neutral dark light particles. The next few demonstrations were therefore designed to highlight his original statements concerning cathodic rays and precursory light.

The younger and more acrid members of the Society, the posh appointees of fashion and advantage, remained completely unimpressed with his outpourings. Their affections forever fawned among the acceptable conventions, since this poise always seemed to preserve and a greater social favor.. .an assured measure of decorum. For them, learning was unimportant. Face and keeping face was all.

Nevertheless, he remained courtly, noble, and somehow impossible not to watch. There was an unmistakable luminosity about the man which was also difficult to deny. It seemed to brighten whenever he spoke. “It is not unlikely that in the experiments here recorded maybe found the key of some as yet unsolved problems in celestial mechanics.. .we may argue from small things to great.” The audience saw his vague outline moving to the far side of the proscenium. They turned to see. Sir William now stood among a select series of vacuum tubes, also now decades old. With these large demonstration vessels, he would provoke his detractors into a renewed revelation of Radiant Matter.


He opened this section of the lecture with a simple statement. “To those, therefore, who admit the Radiant form of matter, no difficulty exists in the simplicity of the properties it possesses, but rather an argument in their favor.” He stood behind a second apparatus, a large V-shaped vacuum tube, and applied the voltage. “You see that the whole of the cathode arm is flooded with green light, but at the bottom stops sharply, and will not turn the comer to get to the anode…. Radiant Matter absolutely refuses to turn a corner.” By this it was understood that cathodic rays did not behave like ordinary electric charge, which would have eagerly sought the positive terminal. Many imagined that the high terminal velocity, imparted to these rays on ejection from the cathode, actually constrained the rays from seeking the electropositive terminal. They remained unconvinced that the rays were “rays of dark light.”

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