William Crookes

Sir William Crookes charity shop

A picture of some shop fronts on the Caledonian Road, a little to the north of Kings Cross station. At the forefront is a slightly grubby blue sign: the Sir William Crookes charity shop. A lot of London charity shops are big brands like Oxfam or the British Heart Foundation, but there are a few independents like this too. They tend to be based around local charities though, named after a campaign or hospital, not a person. So, when I passed this shop one night on my way home from a party, it stuck out. I also recognised the name. Crookes, Crookes, where I have I heard that before?

OH THAT WILLIAM CROOKES.

Reaches for Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Sir William Crookes (b. 17 June 1832, London – d. 4 April 1919, London), a physical chemist who did fundamental work in the development of atomic physics. The eldest kid of sixteen, his father was a successful tailor with a shop in Regents Street. The DSB says he had irregular schooling, although Hannah Gay (BJHS, 1996) also stresses that for all that his interest in chemistry was self-motivated and unsupervised, he was not without support. At 16, he joined AW Hofmann‘s Royal College of Chemistry, ending up as Hofmann’s personal assistent for a few years in the early 1850s. Hoffman’s focus was organic chemistry, but inspired by Faraday, amongst others, Crookes turned his attention to chemistry’s interaction with physics. In 1854 he was briefly superintendent at Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford, and in 1855 moved to teach chemistry at College of Science in Chester.

(At this point I like to imagine him as a teacher in a mid 19th century version of Hollyoaks, but maybe not). 

Crookes moved back to London in 1856 and set up a private laboratory in his home and started an entrepreneurial scientific career the DSB entry described as ‘catholic’. He was an ambitious man, both in business and science, a strong believer that pure science would lead of financial rewards. One might argue he had to be: he had ten kids to support.

His work with vacuums is credited with making possible the discovery of the x-ray and the electron, and was apparently a bit annoyed not to have discovered the x-ray himself. In early March 1861, he found a bright green line in a spectroscopy he was running. He initially thought it was an impurity, but by the end of the month he was confident it was a newly discovered element, and called it Thallium, after the Greek for green shoot. In 1873, he invented what’s known as the Crookes radiometer; an airtight glass bulb, containing a partial vacuum and a set of vanes, mounted on a spindle, which rotate when exposed to light (you’d recognise one if you saw it). He was knighted in 1897, and held presidencies of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society. He founded Chemical News and was involved in several other publications. He published somewhere between 250-300 papers during his career, on a wide range of subjects. As the DSB puts it “with aid of his literary adviser, Alice Bird, Crookes acquired a well-deserved reputation as a Victorian sage”.

(Oh, how much do I want to know more about the Bird lady? Also, do check out quite how much of a sage-like beard Crookes had). 

Ok, you’re probably wondering what the hell has this got to do with a charity shop on the Cally Rd? Did he do the Victorian philanthropist thing and found a hospice or library or something? Did he do load of work on radiation, so a cancer charity’s been named after him, like Marie Curie? Nope. Well, he did work on radioactivity in his later years, but that’s not it… The URL on the shop-front sign was down, but using the Wayback Machine I found content in English and Portuguese, connected to a spiritualist church.

Yep, spiritualist church. Spiritualists, in the words of Wikipedia, are not to be confused with spirituality. It is a specific religion which has some roots in Christianity but dates from 1848. Try BBC’s spiritualism at a glance if you want a primer. The very short version is that they believe you can communicate with the dead.

If you are WFT-ing that a chap who was a President of the Royal Society might have been into séances, you wouldn’t be the first. A contemporary of Crookes, WB Carpenter, the man DSB describes as Crookes ‘archenemy’ would talk of two Crookes, one a rational scientist the other a credulous spiritualist. That’s a very narrow view.

(If you are feeling as if you’d like to stop reading for a bit and listen to some soothing music at this point, try this neat little video, from the British Society for the History of Science outreach team)

Crookes was brought up with the Christian view of an afterlife. He also suffered the death of a beloved brother in 1867. More to the point, there was a range of kinetic, audible and luminous phenomena (and ideas) associated with a séance to capture his scientific attention. Let’s also remember that by the middle of the 19th century, the Victorians had seen huge social and scientific change, people like Crookes wanted to be open to extra-ordinary ideas, and in many ways a study of spiritualism offered a physically-based explanation of aspects of the world. It’s also worth stressing that he was deeply sceptical of much of it, and intolerant of obvious hoaxes, taking a meticulous empirical approach, even if (or perhaps because) he also believed that ‘real’ mediums who could talk to the dead existed. He submitted a paper to the Royal Society on the subject which was rejected on grounds it was not exciting enough (Crookes then published in his own Quarterly Journal of Science), and they did later publish negative observations of another medium.

It’s probably worth mentioning that he was President of the Royal Society after all of this (1913-15). Although the DSB entry does dryly conclude with line that this presidency “was marred not only by the outbreak of war but also by a degree of ill feeling from the young generation of fellows that he had sowed the wild oats of genius past his allotted time” and Gay also notes that many of his awards from the scientific community seem to have been given grudgingly, that wasn’t necessarily because of his involvement spiritualism. Studying ghosts wasn’t quite the credibility-krypotonite it might be for a scientist today.

Gay’s paper starts with the observation that it’s often asked why Crookes didn’t do more with his career, but that one could equally ask why did he accomplish so much? She argues that although he didn’t come from a ‘gentlemanly’ background, or an especially scientific one, his family were not without money or connections. Several members of his family had connections in bookselling, which helped him later in publishing work. He also built on early professional networks at the Royal College of Chemistry, which Gay refers to as a fraternal culture, based on communal if competitive laboratory work supplemented by many outdoor and evening activities. Later, although he had a private lab in some respects this was a “a family economy”. His wife helped, as did his mother in law and, when they were old enough, kids. There were also key roles played by a mentor (George Gabriel Stokes) and skilled laboratory assistent (Charles Henry Gimingham).

Gay’s paper concludes with the important point that there is often an ‘underground economy’ in the production of scientific knowledge which we should always be aware of. She means this in terms of the construction of the conventional science and engineering; behind every great man of history there is not only likely the cliched great woman but a load of other support systems and networks it can be easy to miss (or even deliberately obscured in myth-making). A similar point could easily be made to understand the ‘two sides’ of Crookes. There is always a lot more to a scientific career than just the things that get written up in textbooks, and a lot more to the generation and development of scientific ideas than necessarily ends up lasting as ‘scientific’ thought.

I still have no idea what Crookes’ would have made of his name being used for a shop-front charity in North London though (I mean, the dude was from West London…) or precisely what the money raised by that shop funds.

6 thoughts on “William Crookes

  1. Peter Broks

    Fascinating to see how the past pops up like this. Did you also know that Crookes “experiments” with the medium Florence Cook in the 1870s were carried out at his home in Mornington Road. The house was in the same street and just a few doors down from where H.G. Wells was to live when The Time Machine was serialised in 1895.

    Reply
    1. alice Post author

      From what I’ve read so far, I did guess the Cook experiments were in his home, but didn’t realise it was around there – for some reason I was thinking it was more West London (he’s buried in Fulham). I guess Mornington Rd (now Terrace, if my lunch break google-ing is correct) isn’t that far from the Cally Rd. I used to live round the corner from that road, and didn’t know Wells lived there!

      Reply
  2. Peter Broks

    Yes, the name has changed and as far as I can tell (Google street view) Wells’s house isn’t there any longer. Presumably bomb damage in the war. He didn’t live there for long (he didn’t live anywhere for long in his early career) but he was there in the early months of 1895 when TM was serialised. He actually wrote most it somewhere else but he was tinkering with it all the time.
    Sounds like you know the area. I keep meaning to have a wander around London taking notes for my “1895” project.

    Reply
  3. Will Thomas

    Hi Alice, thanks for the great history post. Just to tie some threads together, Heterodoxology did a post a while ago on “naturalistic spiritualism” that lends some further context to Crookes’ spiritualism. I subsequently did a post on an early-twentieth-century physicist-spiritualist, William Coblentz.

    Reply
  4. Alison Hession

    Sir William Crookes is my Great great Grandfather. I am shocked to see this charity shop bearing his name. My family is unaware of this and I feel that this is disrespectful to his name. Thank you for writing such a great piece about him and bringing this to my attention.
    Alison Hession (nee Crookes

    Reply

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