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William Crookes (1832-1919) and the Commercialization of Science

Author(s):Brock, William H.
Reviewer(s):Stewart, Larry

Published by EH.NET (July 2009)

William H. Brock, William Crookes (1832-1919) and the Commercialization of Science. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008. xxi + 556 pp. $125 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-6322-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Larry Stewart, Department of History, University of Saskatchewan.

If Sir William Crookes is now generally known it is because of the so-called Crookes tube, for displaying ionized radiation, and predecessor of the (until recently) ubiquitous television tube. This focus, as William Brock?s biography reveals, is to miss the remarkable career of a man who rose from origins among Victorian haberdashers to the grand old man of experimental science, as one and only octogenarian President of the Royal Society. But even this trajectory hardly captures a life which reflected many to the intellectual and economic forces of Victorian and Edwardian England, and was tied to some of its greatest speculations, from gold mining and fertilizer, to radiometry and spiritualism.

Crookes had little interest in his father?s business as a tailor, instead attending the Royal College of Chemistry and engaging with early experiments on photography. His introduction of photographic chemistry led him to the editorship of the Photographic News and then ultimately to the ownership of the Chemical News. Both underlined the unification of science and commerce which was to be a hallmark of his life. Without aristocratic contacts, Crookes turned his immense experimental skill to the growing market for popular scientific knowledge and, ultimately, into a reputation that led him to the highest accolades of numerous scientific organizations.

Brock?s biography reveals Crookes? strategy in immense, if sometimes, overwhelming detail. There can be little doubt that Crookes knew exactly what he was doing in the business of self promotion. His status can best be appreciated, Brock suggests, amid the ?Victorian crisis of faith and the concurrent professionalization of the scientific community? (p. 213). But, Brock?s skilfully-drawn account also reveals that Crookes had a commercial sense that took full advantage of Victorian industrial innovation. His interests were widespread and were certainly not confined to, or even followed from, his laboratory work. For example, Crookes investigated the effects of carbolic acid on a wide range of disease, provoked by an extensive and worrisome cattle plague. His laboratory work on evacuated glass tubes led him to a failed attempt to interest Edison in the commercial exploitation of such devices in Britain for the purpose of domestic lighting. He examined the critical possibilities of the purification of water although hardly an expert. This last episode is interesting because it further served to highlight the status and qualifications of analysts and their expertise upon which government was forced to rely. Crookes similarly addressed, partly from a Malthusian alarm over agricultural limitations, the uses of manurial precipitates in fertilization, becoming chief chemist and director of the Native Guano Company while engaging in an intense scientific debate over the uses of human waste. From the problems of daily life in an urban society, Crookes? interests moved to the phenomena of phosphorescence and material disintegration. This further led him to the creation of a detection apparatus which was manufactured under licence by British makers. He ultimately moved on to speculative ventures in gold and silver recovery, from Wales to the Transvaal, to the artificial production of diamonds and the manufacture of lenses to protect eye sight, despite the resistance of industrial workers.

But commercial promotion was only part of Crookes? life. Undoubtedly this had enabled him to become quite well off. It also allowed him to maintain a private laboratory and to be able to employ assistants like Charles Gimingham, highly skilled in instrumental design and adept at glass blowing. Throughout much of his experimental work, Crookes was a highly controversial figure. While grounded in brilliant laboratory research, with innovative instrumentation, he was also intensely speculative in experimental work such as on the theory of radioactivity and the discovery of rare earths. As Brock points out, there can be little doubt that Crookes? own laboratory had to be highly radioactive as he had long been a significant actor in the world of chemical physics, notably during the radium craze.

But controversy followed not from theoretical debate alone but from the public attention which Crookes went out of his way to generate. Crookes did not shirk from publicizing his own accomplishments in the Chemical News, even once publishing his own speech in Berlin to maximize its exposure. Besides an editor and publicist, he was an accomplished lecturer-showman. Crookes thus became a scientific celebrity and president of various groups like the Chemical Society and, his crowning glory, the Presidency of the Royal Society. Having achieved the peak of scientific recognition, and a knighthood, his ego could not resist the design of a coat of arms. No wonder he was nominated several times for a Nobel Prize. But his passion for celebrity was also his weakness.

There were many with great reservations about Crookes? approach to research, especially following his notorious credulity. He was once drawn in by the old fool?s gold of the transmutation of metals, but most dramatic were his many bizarre encounters with the spirit world which he failed to disguise. In these respects, Crookes sometimes appears a desperate figure. He was fooled more than once by the schemes of spiritualists and their s?ances, many in his own home, trying to provide not only evidence of spirits, but to contact recently deceased members of his immediate family. Of course, he was hardly unique in this. Others like Oliver Lodge, Cromwell Varley, and even Alfred Russell Wallace followed this trail. Crookes was prominent in the Society for Psychical Research although his fellow spiritualist Lodge found Crookes? involvement in the so-called ?Ghost Club? merely ludicrous. Brock thus reveals a Crookes repeatedly ?hoodwinked,? but it must also be admitted that late Victorian and Edwardian society revealed that spiritualism had a broad appeal across all classes. Brock makes a particularly interesting argument in that the Victorian laboratories spent much effort over the many anomalies in physical forces, especially at a subatomic level. Hence, it was no great leap from investigating the spectral lines of rare earths, or the invention of the radiometer to determine the kinetic force of light, to supposedly finding photographic or magnetic evidence of spiritual forces. Crookes clearly had a predisposition to communicate with the spirit world, but one which was reinforced by his highly adept experimental work on atomic weights, material decay, and newly detected rays.

This is a highly-informed and exhaustive work on a scientist across the vast range of Victorian and Edwardian England opportunity who, ultimately, in his long life, garnered many accolades from the most prominent of scientific societies. Yet, amid vast detail, Brock also reveals a man of many obsessions, some of which embarrassed his contemporaries and sullied his reputation.

Larry Stewart, Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, is the author of The Rise of Public Science and (with Margaret Jacob) Practical Matter: Newton?s Science in the Service of Industry and Empire, 1687-1851. An examination of pneumatic chemistry, ?His Majesty?s Subjects,? will appear shortly in Notes and Records of the Royal Society. He is currently working on a history of experimentation in the first industrial revolution.

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII