Book Review: Champion of Victorian Science

William Crookes

Ubi Crookes ibi lux, lithograph by Vincent Brooks, Day and Son Ltd. published in Vanity Fair, May 21, 1903.

William H. Brock. William Crookes (1832–1919) and the Commercialization of Science. Aldershot, U.K. and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008. xxvii + 556 pp. $124.95/£65.00. 

The career of William Crookes was one of the most unusual in Victorian England. Born the son of a tailor he studied chemistry at the Royal College of Chemistry in London; he founded and edited the influential weekly Chemical News; discovered the chemical element thallium; took a strong, sometimes gullible, interest in spiritualism; discovered cathode rays; suggested how chemical elements might be ordered; and sought to make money from various science-based industrial projects. His career culminated in becoming Britain’s leading scientific figure as president of the Royal Society (1913–1915) and his appointment in 1910 to the elite Order of Merit, having been knighted in 1897. For his coat of arms he included images of the radiometer, which he invented; prisms, which he had used in his cathode ray tube; and Maltese crosses. His motto was ubi crux ibi lux (where there is a cross, there is light)—a play on the name of the village of Crux (now called Crookes) near Sheffield, where the Crookes family believed it had originated.

Crookes’s first biography was published shortly after his death, as was the case for so many Victorian men of science. In this case it was a rather superficial one by E. E. Fournier d’Albe in 1923. Since then a number of studies of specific parts of Crookes’s work have been published, but this is the first proper biography. One of the reasons for the lack of a biography has been that d’Albe had access to 40,000 items of Crookes’s papers, but the vast majority of this collection subsequently disappeared. The prospect that it might turn up one day discouraged potential biographers; despite extensive searches for these papers by William Brock and others, the conclusion has to be that they were destroyed. Brock, using more than 800 published articles by Crookes, as well as his journalism and surviving manuscripts, most important his laboratory notebooks, has written a convincing (I would almost be tempted to say definitive) account of Crookes’s varied life.

So what sort of person was Crookes? First, he was a journalist and as such was able to help form scientific opinion at a time when science was coming more and more to the fore in public debates on a whole range of issues from sewage disposal to food production. Second, Crookes was a superb experimentalist who also had the good fortune to employ first-rate assistants in his laboratories, which were located in his homes. His break came when he observed in 1861 an unassigned green spectroscopic line, which he correctly believed belonged to a previously unknown chemical element. He proceeded to isolate this element and named it thallium. A third feature of Crookes’s character was his determination to claim credit for work regardless of the claims of others. In the case of thallium, against his promises, he did not credit the contributions of Greville Williams, a friend and frequent employee. And he played the nationalistic card against the French chemist Claude-August Lamy’s claims to the discovery of thallium by getting himself elected a Fellow of the Royal Society as the first Englishman since Humphry Davy to have discovered a chemical element.

A fourth feature that emerges from Brock’s work is that as an experimentalist Crookes was particularly interested in understanding anomalies. He did not always spot them. For example, he once returned some photographic paper to the supplier because it was fogged—it was only after Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen had discovered X-rays in 1895 that Crookes realized why the paper was faulty! His interest in anomalies went across the whole range of his investigations and partially accounts for the seriousness with which he took spiritualism. He argued that since Michael Faraday (whom he first met at a séance) had taken it sufficiently seriously to undertake experiments on the subject, it was worthy of further study, despite Faraday having dismissed the whole thing as nonsense. It is striking how many prominent late-19th-century scientific figures took an interest in spiritualism, including Oliver Lodge, the third Lord Rayleigh, Alfred Russel Wallace, and others. While in part much of this had to do with the decline of Christianity at that time, Brock conclusively shows that in the case of Crookes there were strong links with what might be regarded as his more conventional scientific work; for example, his work on the radiometer involved understanding mysterious forces and Crookes evidently had no way, or even desire, to distinguish between mysterious forces in one area or another.

Like all good biographers Brock has cast light onto far more than the subject. Crookes’s career illustrates just what someone had to do to pursue a scientific career at a time when the scientific community was small and hardly professionalized, but gaining influence. Thus this book illustrates more general social attitudes toward science in the late 19th century, perhaps most spectacularly with the ruling by a judge in a patent case that “in a liberal construction, copper is tin.” Crookes emerges as a major figure in 19th- and 20th-century science, and historians will long be grateful to Brock for tracking Crookes’s role in the development of science in virtually all its aspects.

Frank A. J. L. James is a professor of the history of science at the Royal Institution. He is editor of the Correspondence of Michael Faraday of which five out of six volumes have been published.