From “Oddities – A Book of Unexplained Facts” by Lieut.-Commander Rupert T. Gould, R.N. (Ret.), 1928

UNTIL 1836 the English public had never heard of Andrew Crosse. A small circle of friends knew that he lived at a rather dilapidated country-seat in the Quantock Hills, where he spent his time, and what money an encumbered estate allowed him, in electrical experiments. His rustic neighbours spoke of him as “the thunder and lightning man,” and shunned his house like the plague, especially after nightfall, it being a matter of common notoriety that devils, surrounded by lightning, were then to be seen dancing upon wires encircling its grounds. By the end of 1837 he was being reviled from one end of England to the other. He was an atheist, a blasphemer, “a reviler of our holy religion,” “a disturber of the peace of families,” a modern Prometheus, a would-be Frankenstein, a man who had presumptuously attempted to rival the God that made him—and many other of those flowers of speech which generally spread themselves about like leaves in Vallombrosa during the progress of religious or quasi-religious controversies.

Who was this dreadful person, and what had he done?

He was a simple, honest, and God-fearing man, belonging to a class very common in the last century but increasingly rare in this. In other words, he was a scientific amateur, having the time and money for prolonged experimental work, but gravely handicapped by a lack of scientific training and by an almost complete ignorance of the work of other men in the same field.

His offence—which, incidentally, he had not committed—was of an unusual kind. He was accused of having attempted to create living creatures, by an electrical process, from dead matter. Indeed, it was further laid to his account that he had succeeded in doing so—that he had evolved, in poisonous solutions fatal to all normal animal life, numbers of insects of the species Acarus (mites), which insects lived, moved, and bred.

Actually, he had done this. But he had not done it designedly, and whether what he had done was, in effect, an artificial production of life, remained and remains an open question, which he did not attempt to answer.

Here are his own words on the subject:1

“As to the appearance of the acari under long continued electrical action, I have never in thought, word, or deed, given any one a right to suppose that I considered them as a creation, or even as a formation, from inorganic matter. To create is to form a something out of nothing. To annihilate, is to reduce that something to a nothing. Both of these, of course, can only be the attributes of the Almighty.

“In fact, I assure you most sacredly that I have never dreamed of any theory sufficient to account for their appearance. I confess that I was not a little surprised, and am so still, and quite as much as I was when the acari first made their appearance. Again, I have never claimed any merit as attaching to these experiments. It was a matter of chance. I was looking for silicious formations, and acari appeared instead… The obloquy so freely showered upon Crosse left him unmoved: knowing it to be undeserved, he could afford to despise it.2 It affected neither his life nor his temper. But it had one definitely evil effect—the natural result of all such persecutions. It prevented Crosse from publishing, or even communicating, his further work on the same subject. Extensive though that work was, very little record of it, or of the original experiments, has survived—and in consequence it is not easy to put together a clear account of what Crosse did and what he observed. In fact, there are practically only two sources: the short account given in his wife’s Memorials of Andrew Crosse,3 and the even shorter one which appeared in Harriet Martineau’s History of the Thirty Years’ Peace.4 Still, these are quite authentic, as far as they go. The account in the Memorials is largely in Crosse’s own words, while that in Miss Martineau’s history is based on first-hand information communicated to her by Crosse, and contains several important details which the other lacks.

The following account is compiled from these sources.

In the year 1837 Crosse was making certain experiments upon the artificial formation of crystals by means of weak and long-continued electric currents. The acari first appeared in the course of an attempt to make crystals of silica by allowing a suitable fluid medium to seep through a piece of porous stone (oxide of iron, from Vesuvius) kept electrified by means of a battery. The fluid used was a mixture of hydrochloric acid and a solution of silicate of potash.

“On the fourteenth day from the commencement of this experiment I observed through a lens a few small whitish excrescences or nipples, projecting from about the middle of the electrified stone. On the eighteenth day these projections enlarged, and struck out seven or eight filaments, each of them longer than the hemisphere on which they grew.

“On the twenty-sixth day these appearances assumed the form of a perfect insect, standing erect on a few bristles which formed its tail. Till this period I had no notion that these appearances were other than an incipient mineral formation. On the twenty-eighth day these little creatures moved their legs. I must now say that I was not a little astonished. After a few days they detached themselves from the stone, and moved about at pleasure.

“In the course of a few weeks about a hundred of them made their appearance on the stone. I examined them with a microscope, and observed that the smaller ones appeared to have only six legs, the larger ones eight. These insects are pronounced to be of the genus acarus, but there appears to be a difference of opinion as to whether they are a known species; some assert that they are not. [See Fig. 1]

“I have never ventured an opinion on the cause of their birth, and for a very good reason—I was unable to form one. The simplest solution of the problem which occurred to me was that they arose from ova deposited by insects floating in the atmosphere and hatched by electric action. Still I could not imagine that an ovum could shoot out filaments, or that these filaments could become bristles, and moreover I could not detect, on the closest examination, the remains of a shell…

“I next imagined, as others have done, that they might originate from the water, and consequently made a close examination of numbers of vessels filled with the same fluid: in none of these could I perceive a trace of an insect, nor could I see any in any other part of the room.” In subsequent experiments Crosse discarded the porous electrified stone, and for the most part produced the acari in glass cylinders filled with concentrated solutions of such substances as copper nitrate, copper sulphate, and zinc sulphate. The acari generally made their appearance at the edge of the fluid surface, but he remarks:

“In some cases these insects appear two inches under the electrified fluid, but after emerging from it they were destroyed if thrown back.” In one case the acari appeared on the lower part of a small piece of quartz, immersed to the depth of two inches in fluoric acid holding silica in solution. [H2SiF6]

“A current of electricity was passed through this fluid for a twelvemonth or more; and at the end of some months three of these acari were visible on the piece of quartz, which was kept negatively electrified. I have closely examined the progress of these insects.

“Their first appearance consists in a very minute whitish hemisphere, formed upon the surface of the electrified body, sometimes at the positive end, and sometimes at the negative, and occasionally between the two, or in the middle of the electrified current; and sometimes upon all. In a few days this speck enlarges and elongates vertically, and shoots out filaments of a whitish wavy appearance, and easily seen through a lens of very low power.

“Then commences the first appearance of animal life. If a fine point be made to approach these filaments, they immediately shrink up and collapse like zoophytes upon moss, but expand again some time after the removal of the point. Some days afterwards these filaments become legs and bristles, and a perfect acarus is the result, which finally detaches itself from its birthplace, and if under a fluid, climbs up the electrified wire and escapes from the vessel….

“If one of them be afterwards thrown into the fluid in which he was produced, he is immediately drowned. . . . I have never before heard of acari having been produced under a fluid, or of their ova throwing out filaments; nor have I ever observed any ova previous to or during electrization, except that the speck which throws out filaments be an ovum; but when a number of these insects, in a perfect state, congregate, ova are produced.” The acari thus produced lived, generally, until the first frost, which was invariably fatal to them. In a later experiment, Crosse succeeded in producing an acarus in a closed and airtight glass retort filled with an electrified solution, one wire being led in through the wall of the retort and the other through a cup of mercury at its beak. The solution was a silicate one, prepared as for the first experiment, and was put in hot. On connecting up the battery:

“An electric action commenced; oxygen and hydrogen gases were liberated; the volume of atmospheric air was soon expelled. Every care had been taken to avoid atmospheric contact and admittance of extraneous matter, and the retort itself had previously been washed with hot alcohol. This apparatus was placed in a dark cellar.

“I discovered no sign of incipient animal formation until on the 140th day, when I plainly distinguished one acarus actively crawling about within the bulb of the retort.

“I found that I had made a great error in this experiment; and I believe it was in consequence of this error that I not only lost sight of the single insect, but never saw any others in this apparatus. I had omitted to insert within the bulb of the retort a resting-place for these acari (they are always destroyed if they fall back into the fluid from which they have emerged). It is strange that, in a solution eminently caustic and under an atmosphere of oxihydrogen gas, one single acarus should have made its appearance.” Crosse also succeeded in producing acari in “an atmosphere strongly impregnated with chlorine”; but while these assumed the form of perfect insects, and remained undecomposed until the apparatus was taken apart over two years later, they never moved or showed any signs of life. His experiments were repeated and extended by another enthusiastic amateur, Weeks of Sandwich, who took a number of precautions to ensure, as far as possible, that no animal life was already present at the start of the experiments. For example, he baked his apparatus in an oven, used distilled water, filled his receivers (inverted over mercury troughs) with manufactured oxygen instead of air, and super-heated his silicate solutions. After about a year and a half of electrification, acari invariably made their appearance. Control experiments, made in exactly the same manner and with the same apparatus, but omitting the electric current, gave uniformly negative results—no acari appeared. He also made quantitative experiments, and found that the number of acari electrically produced varied, roughly, with the percentage of carbon in his solutions.