Did an amateur scientist accidentally create life in a laboratory in 19th century England? The bizarre results of Andrew Crosse’s experiment remain a mystery to this day.
180 years ago amateur scientist Andrew Crosse accidentally created life. Well, he never actually claimed as much, but he was never able to determine where his little creatures came from if not conjured from the aether.
After the death of his parents-his father in 1800, his mother in 1805-Crosse inherited the family’s vast English estate known as Fyne Court. Crosse converted the old manor’s music room into a laboratory, his “electric room,” where he conducted numerous experiments throughout the years. He erected an enormous apparatus to study atmospheric electricity, and was among the first to create large voltaic piles. But it would be a series of seemingly mundane experiments to artificially create minerals that would cement his strange place in the annals of history.
In the book Memorials, Scientific and Literary, of Andrew Crosse, the Electrician, published in 1857 just a few years after his death, Crosse’s wife Cornelia wrote, “In the year 1837 Mr. Crosse was pursuing some experiments on electro-crystallisation, and in the course of these investigations insects made their appearance under conditions usually fatal to animal life. Mr. Crosse never did more than state the fact of these appearances, which were totally unexpected by him, and in respect to which he had never put forth any theory.”
The experiment in which the “insects” first appeared consisted of a mixture of water, silicate of potassa, and hydrochloric acid dripping onto porous Vesuvius rock that was being continuously electrified by two wires connected to a voltaic battery. “The object of subjecting this fluid to a long continued electric action through the intervention of a porous stone was to form if possible crystals of silica,” Crosse wrote, “but this failed.”
The process didn’t yield the results Crosse hoped for, but something completely unexpected happened instead. On the fourteenth day of the experiment Crosse noticed small, white excrescences projecting from around the middle of the electrified stone. On the eighteenth day Crosse noted the growths had enlarged, and now had long “filaments” projecting from them. It soon became clear these were not the artificial minerals Crosse was trying to create, but something which would deny all explanation.
A drawing of the acarus by Andrew Crosse
“On the twenty-sixth day,” Crosse observed, “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.”
Over the next few weeks about a hundred of these strange bugs formed on the stone. Cross examined them under a microscope and discovered the smaller ones had six legs, while the larger had eight. He showed the creatures to entomologists who identified them as being mites from the genus acarus. The memoirs of Andrew Crosse refer to them as Acarus Electricus, but they are better known as Acari Crossii. He wrote “there appears to be a difference of opinion as to whether they are a known species; some assert that they are not. 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,” his account of the incident stated, “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.”
Crosse duplicated his experiment several times using different materials, but still achieved similar results. In some instances, he was amazed to observe the insects growing several inches below the surface of the caustic, electrified fluid but “after emerging from it they were destroyed if thrown back.” In another case, he filled the apparatus with a strong chlorine atmosphere. The insects still formed under those conditions, and remained intact inside the container for over two years, but never once moved or showed signs of vitality.
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The Andrew Crosse Experiment
“Their first appearance consists in a very minute whitish hemisphere,” Crosse observed, “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 birth-place, and if under a fluid, climbs up the electrified wire, and escapes from the vessel, and afterwards feeds either on the moisture or the outside of the vessel, or on paper or card, or other substance in its vicinity.”
In a 1849 letter to writer Harriett Martineau, Crosse noted how similar the appearance of the mites was to electrically created minerals. “In many of them,” he explained, “more especially in the formation of sulphate of lime, or sulphate of strontia, its commencement is denoted by a whitish speck : so it is in the birth of the acarus. This mineral speck enlarges and elongates vertically : so it does with the acarus. Then the mineral throws out whitish filaments : so does the acarus speck. So far it is difficult to detect the difference between the incipient mineral and the animal; but as these filaments become more definite in each, in the mineral they become rigid, shining, transparent six-sided prisms; in the animal they are soft and having filaments, and finally endowed with motion and life.”
A Reviler of Our Holy Religion
Puzzled by the appearance of the mites, Crosse spoke with some friends at the London Electrical Society. They were unable to help him make sense of the bizarre results, but he soon learned he had made the grave mistake of sharing the story within earshot of the editor of a local newspaper. While it is noted to have been done in a “very friendly spirit,” the editor immediately published Crosse’s story without authorization and inadvertently whipped the public into a frenzy. Soon papers across Europe were running headlines about the man who they alleged thought himself God’s equal. Crosse was deemed a blasphemer, and began receiving angry letters and death threats. One letter in particular referred to Crosse as a “disturber of the peace of families,” and “a reviler of our holy religion.” A local reverend assembled his congregation on the hill above Fyne Court to perform an exorcism. Crosse was even blamed for a potato blight that was happening at the time.
Cornelia wrote of Crosse’s response to these accusations: “Mr. Crosse’s answer was very characteristic: after disavowing all intention to raise any questions connected with either natural or revealed religion, he went on to observe that he was sorry to see that the faith of his neighbours could be overset by the claw of a mite.”
Despite attempts to clarify that he never made any claims to having created life, nor that he believed they formed from inorganic matter, the general public had already made up their minds. Even Crosse’s neighbors shunned him. He spent the last years of his life withdrawn and depressed.
Following the details in a paper Crosse wrote for the London Electrical Society, an electrician named W. H. Weeks performed the experiment under tight conditions, careful to keep out any foreign matter or contaminants. It took some time, but finally, after a year and a half, the acari appeared in Week’s sealed apparatus. He published the results, also noting that when he attempted the same experiment without the element of electricity, the acari did not form.
In the end, the appearance of the insects remained a mystery to Crosse to the day he died. He wrote, “I have formed no visionary theory that I would travel out of my way to support.”
Attempts by other researchers to create Crosse’s insects throughout the years have purportedly proven unsuccessful or stopped short of actually recreating the experiment.
Illustration by Philip Baynes for a short story called The Electric Vampire by F. H. Power, inspired the experiments of Andrew Crosse. Published in the October 1910 edition of The London Magazine.