Tech UPTechnologyThe man who created life with electricity

The man who created life with electricity

Andrew Crosse was one of the last “scientific gentlemen”, dilettantes who, thanks to their family income, could dedicate themselves to science without having to be attached to a university. He was an elegant Victorian Englishman who lived in his mansion at Fyne Court, in the county of Somerset. He was fascinated with electricity from the age of 12, to the point that in the last two years of his secondary education he built his own Leyden jar , a device that stores static electricity.

Between 1800 and 1805 he lost his parents, so at the age of 21 he took possession of Fyne Court, which he converted into a large laboratory for his electrical and mineralogical research. Among his experiments was one that earned him the fear of his neighbors: to study atmospheric electricity in different climatic conditions, he had a suitably insulated cable stretched over 2 km (which he would later shorten to half a kilometer), suspended from poles and the trees all over his farm.

He also built one of the largest Volta batteries of the time , which he charged and discharged using his cable runs 20 times a minute, earning him the title of “the man of thunder and lightning”. That, along with the sound of lightning crackling along the wires on stormy days, made his neighbors think he was crazy.

Another of his lines of research was electrocrystallization, the use of electric current to grow mineral crystals such as quartz. Among the different experiments he carried out in this field, the one he did in 1836 was to make him unfortunately famous: in the music room he had placed a piece of iron oxide, connected to a voltaic cell , on which he slowly dropped a solution of potassium silicate. Crosse believed that crystals would form on the rust, but what he could never imagine was what was actually going to happen.

Fourteen days after the experiment, Crosse observed that some whitish excrescences had appeared on the rock, which were becoming larger with the passage of time. It was on the 26th when, as he described, “they took the form of a perfect insect , erect on a few hairs that formed its tail.” Two days later, “these little creatures moved their legs… and a few days later they broke away from the rock and began to move freely.” Crosse examined them under the microscope and saw that they had 8 legs; they resembled cheese mites, but were larger.

He repeated the experiment by electrolyzing a potassium silicate solution in a glass container, and weeks later hundreds of these insects made their appearance.

He told his experiments to two close friends and they recommended that he make it public. So he sent a paper with his discovery to the London Electrical Society. Then a local journalist got wind of the affair and announced, under the headline “Extraordinary Experiment” in the December 31 Sommerset County Gazette, that Crosse had caused an insect, which he named Acarus crossii, to appear using electricity. The journalist concluded that, if insects had been found in ancient rocks, “is it not possible that some of them, released from their prison and put in the best position to recover their vitality, have come back to life after a sleep of thousands of years.” years?” The news spread across the country like wildfire and jumped the English Channel: an English scientist had created life in his laboratory.

For his neighbors, it was what was missing: they were not only convinced that he was crazy, but that he was a diabolical madman. One of them wrote to the newspaper that “Andrew Crosse should have been hanged long ago for dealing with the devil… As far as I know, he has summoned the devil 4 or 5 times.” The following months were an ordeal for the poor scientist: he received numerous death threats, they called him a blasphemer and Frankenstein, of trying to take the place of God and of being a threat to “our sacred religion”. Surrounding farmers accused him that his insects were killing their crops, and a priest performed an exorcism from a nearby hill. Crosse feared for his life and secluded himself in his home. The scandal affected him so much that from then until the day of his death in July 1855 he lived apart, avoiding any contact with his neighbors.

Of course, Crosse never claimed to have created life , “if electricity had anything to do with its birth, it is something that he could not affirm without further experimentation.” Nor did the scientific community believe that he had. Others tried to reproduce it, like the surgeon William Henry Weekes, who said he had obtained five perfect insects after a year of work. But the rest of his colleagues got nothing. So what happened? Historians of science think that Crosse’s instruments were most likely contaminated with the larvae of tiny mites . Of course, the newspapers went the other way, and claimed that the most important scientist of the day, and the great expert on electricity, Michael Faraday, had duplicated Crosse’s experiment. The commotion was such that the great English experimenter had to make a statement denying such an extreme: “With regard to Mr. Crosse’s insects, I don’t think anyone believes in them except perhaps himself and the fans of the amazing.” Surprisingly, even today some people think that a Victorian scientist created life in the middle of the English countryside.

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