William Crookes

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Sir William Crookes
Sir William Crookes 1906.jpg
Sir William Crookes in 1906
Born (1832-06-17)17 June 1832
London, England
Died 4 April 1919(1919-04-04) (aged 86)
London, England
Nationality British
Fields Physical chemistry
Known for Thallium
Influenced J. K. F. Zöllner
Notable awards Royal Medal (1875)
Davy Medal (1888)
Albert Medal (1899)
Copley Medal (1904)
Elliott Cresson Medal (1912)

Sir William Crookes, OM, FRS (17 June 1832 – 4 April 1919) was a British chemist and physicist who attended the Royal College of Chemistry, London, and worked on spectroscopy. He was a pioneer of vacuum tubes, inventing the Crookes tube. Crookes was the inventor of the Crookes radiometer,[1] which today is made and sold as a novelty item.


Crookes made a career of being a meteorologist and lecturer at multiple places. Crookes worked in both the fields of chemistry and physics. The salient characteristic of his work was the originality of the conception of his experiments, and his skill in their execution. His interests, ranging over pure and applied science, economic and practical problems, and psychiatrical research, made him a well-known personality, and he received many public and academic honors. Crookes's life was one of unbroken scientific activity.

Early years[edit]

William Crookes (also known as Sir William Crookes) was born in London, the eldest son of 16. His father Joseph Crookes, was a tailor of north-country origin, living with his second wife, Mary Scott Lewis Rutherford Johnson.

From 1850 to 1854 he filled the position of assistant in the college, and soon embarked upon original work, not in organic chemistry where the inspiration of his teacher, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, might have been expected to lead him, but on new compounds of selenium. These formed the subject of his first published papers in 1851. He worked at the department at the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford in 1854, and in 1855 was appointed lecturer in chemistry at the Chester Diocesan Training College. In 1856 he married Ellen, daughter of William Humphrey, of Darlington, by whom he fathered three sons and a daughter. Married and living in London, he was devoted mainly to independent work. In 1859, he founded the Chemical News, a science magazine which he edited for many years and conducted on much less formal lines than his usual with journals of scientific societies.

Middle years[edit]

In 1861, Crookes discovered a previously unknown element with a bright green emission line in its spectrum and named the element thallium, from the Greek thallos, a green shoot. Crookes wrote a standard treatise on Select Methods in Chemical Analysis in 1871. Crookes was effective in experimentation. The method of spectral analysis, introduced by Bunsen and Kirchhoff, was received by Crookes with great enthusiasm and to great effect. His first important discovery was that of the element thallium, announced in 1861, and made with the help of spectroscopy. By this work his reputation became firmly established, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1863.

He developed the Crookes tubes,[2] investigating cathode rays. He published numerous papers on spectroscopy and conducted research on a variety of minor subjects. In his investigations of the conduction of electricity in low pressure gases, he discovered that as the pressure was lowered, the negative electrode (cathode) appeared to emit rays (the so-called "cathode rays", now known to be a stream of free electrons, and used in cathode ray display devices). As these examples indicate, he was a pioneer in the construction and use of vacuum tubes for the study of physical phenomena.[3] He was, as a consequence, one of the first scientists to investigate what are now called plasmas and identified it as the fourth state of matter in 1879.[4] He also devised one of the first instruments for the study of nuclear radioactivity, the spinthariscope.

Crookes investigated the properties of cathode rays, showing that they travel in straight lines, cause fluorescence in objects upon which they impinge, and by their impact produce great heat. He believed that he had discovered a fourth state of matter, which he called "radiant matter",[5] but his theoretical views on the nature of "radiant matter" were to be superseded.[6] He believed the rays to consist of streams of particles of ordinary molecular magnitude. It remained for Sir J. J. Thomson to expound on the subatomic nature of cathode rays (consisting of streams of negative electrons[7]). Nevertheless, Crookes's experimental work in this field was the foundation of discoveries which eventually changed the whole of chemistry and physics.

Crookes' attention had been attracted to the vacuum balance in the course of thallium research. He soon discovered the phenomenon upon which depends the action of the Crookes radiometer, in which a system of vanes, each blackened on one side and polished on the other, is set in rotation when exposed to radiant energy. Crookes did not, however, provide the true explanation of this apparent "attraction and repulsion resulting from radiation".

After 1880, he lived at 7 Kensington Park Gardens, where all his later work was carried out in his private laboratory.

Later Years[edit]

Sir William Crookes
by Sir Leslie Ward 1902

Crookes identified the first known sample of helium, in 1895. Crookes was knighted in 1897.

In 1903, Crookes turned his attention to the newly discovered phenomenon of radioactivity, achieving the separation from uranium of its active transformation product, uranium-X (later established to be protactinium). Crookes observed the gradual decay of the separated transformation product, and the simultaneous reproduction of a fresh supply in the original uranium. At about the same time as this important discovery, he observed that when "p-particles", ejected from radio-active substances, impinge upon zinc sulfide, each impact is accompanied by a minute scintillation, an observation which forms the basis of one of the most useful methods in the technique of radioactivity.

Crookes wrote a small book on diamonds in 1909. In 1910, Crookes received the Order of Merit. He died in London on 4 April 1919, two years after his wife. He is buried in London's Brompton Cemetery.[8]


In 1870 Crookes decided that science had a duty to study preternatural phenomena associated with spiritualism (Crookes 1870). While still skeptical concerning the existence of physical phenomena, Crookes was previously acquainted with displays of mental phenomena. Arthur Conan Doyle posited that this may been the reason behind his sympathetic approach to the subject.[9] Nevertheless, he was determined to conduct his inquiry impartially and described the conditions he imposed on mediums as follows: "It must be at my own house, and my own selection of friends and spectators, under my own conditions, and I may do whatever I like as regards apparatus".[10] Among the mediums he studied were Kate Fox, Florence Cook, and Daniel Dunglas Home[11][12] Among the phenomena he claimed to have witnessed were movement of bodies at a distance, rappings, changes in the weights of bodies, levitation, appearance of luminous objects, appearance of phantom figures, appearance of writing without human agency, and circumstances which "point to the agency of an outside intelligence".[13] Edward Clodd claimed Crookes had a poor eyesight that may of explained his belief in spiritualist phenomena and quoted William Ramsay as saying Crookes is "so shortsighted that, despite his unquestioned honesty, he cannot be trusted in what he tells you he has seen."[14] According to Doyle, however, Crookes was in excellent condition at the time of experiments involving Katie King.[15]

After studying the reports of the mediumship of Florence Cook the science historian Sherrie Lynne Lyons wrote the alleged spirit "Katie King" was Florence herself and at other times an accomplice. Regarding Crookes, Lyons wrote "Here was a man with a flawless scientific reputation, who discovered a new element, but could not detect a real live maiden who was masquerading as a ghost."[16] Cook was repeatedly exposed as a fraudulent medium but she had been "trained in the arts of the séance" which managed to trick Crookes.[17]

In a series of experiments in London at the house of Crookes in February 1875, the medium Anna Eva Fay managed to fool Crookes into believing she had genuine psychic powers. Fay later confessed to her fraud and revealed the tricks she had used.[18] Regarding Crookes and his experiments with mediums, the magician Harry Houdini wrote:

There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that this brainy man was hoodwinked, and that his confidence was betrayed by the so-called mediums that he tested. His powers of observation were blinded and his reasoning faculties so blunted by his prejudice in favor of anything psychic or occult that he could not, or would not, resist the influence.[19]

In 1906, William Hope tricked Crookes with a fake spirit photograph of his wife. Oliver Lodge revealed there had been obvious signs of double exposure, the picture of Lady Crookes had been copied from a wedding anniversary photograph, however, Crookes was a convinced spiritualist and claimed it was genuine evidence for spirit photography.[20] Researcher Trevor H. Hall documented evidence that Crookes had an affair with the medium he investigated Florence Cook.[21] Crookes joined the Society for Psychical Research, becoming its president in the 1890s: he also joined the Theosophical Society and the Ghost Club,[22] of which he was president from 1907 to 1912.[23] In 1890 he was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.[24]

His report on this research in 1874, concluded that these phenomena could not be explained as conjuring, and that further research would be useful. Crookes was not alone in his views. Fellow scientists who came to believe in spiritualism included Alfred Russel Wallace, Oliver Lodge and Lord Rayleigh.[25] Nevertheless, most scientists were convinced that spiritualism was fraudulent, and Crookes' final report so outraged the scientific establishment "that there was talk of depriving him of his Fellowship of the Royal Society." Crookes then became much more cautious and didn't discuss his views publicly until 1898, when he felt his position was secure. From that time until his death in 1919, letters and interviews show that Crookes was a believer in spiritualism.[26]


  1. ^ U.S. Patent 182,172, Improvement In Apparatus For Indicating The Intensity Of Radiation
  2. ^ The difference between "Crookes tubes" and "Geissler tubes" is this: In a Geissler tube the exhaustion is very much less than in a Crookes tube, the light which we see in the Geissler tube being due to the luminescence of the residual gas. (Transactions, Volume 9. Hertfordshire Natural History Society and Field Club. The Club, 1898. Page 136.)
  3. ^ Alexander E. Outerbridge, Jr., A Fourth State of Matter. Lecture delivered before the Franklin Institute, 17 February 1881. Journal of the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania, Volume 81. By Franklin Institute (Philadelphia, Pa.). Page 287+.
  4. ^ William Crookes, On Radiant Matter. Lecture delivered before the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at Sheffield, Friday, 22 August 1879. The Popular Science Monthly, Volume 16. D. Appleton, 1880. Pg157+
  5. ^ Radio-activity induced by the oscillatory discharge, or, The subsequent radio-active emanation from substances exposed to the Tesla oscillatory discharge. Harry Marshall Diemer, Ralph Stuart Cooper. Cornell University, 1903. Page 43+.
  6. ^ Chemist & Druggist, Volume 60. Benn Brothers., 1902. Pg 268.
  7. ^ Negatively electrified particles whose mass is only 1/1840 that of a hydrogen atom
  8. ^ Brock (2004)
  9. ^ Doyle 1926: volume 1, 91
  10. ^ Doyle 1926: volume 1, 177
  11. ^ Christiansen, Rupert (2000). "The psychic cloud: Yankee spirit-rappers". The Victorian Visitors. Atlantic Monthly Press. pp. 154–155. ISBN 0-87113-790-9. 
  12. ^ Doyle 1926: volume 1, 230-251
  13. ^ Crookes, William (1874). "Notes of an Enquiry into the Phenomena called Spiritual during the Years 1870-1873". Quarterly Journal of Science 
  14. ^ Edward Clodd. (1917). The Question: A Brief History and Examination of Modern Spiritualism. Grant Richards, London. p. 100
  15. ^ Doyle 1926: volume 1, 90
  16. ^ Sherrie Lynne Lyons. (2010). Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age. State University of New York Press. p. 101. ISBN 978-1438427980
  17. ^ M. Lamar Keene. (1997). The Psychic Mafia. Prometheus Books. p. 64. ISBN 978-1573921619 "The most famous of materialization mediums, Florence Cook-- though she managed to convince a scientist, Sir William Crookes, that she was genuine-- was repeatedly exposed in fraud. Florence had been trained in the arts of the séance by Frank Herne, a well-known physical medium whose materializations were grabbed on more than one occasion and found to be the medium himself."
  18. ^ The Skeptical Inquirer. (2000). Volume 24. Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. pp. 36-38
  19. ^ Harry Houdini. (2011). A Magician Among the Spirits. Cambridge University Press. p. 205. ISBN 978-1108027489
  20. ^ William Hodson Brock. (2008). William Crookes (1832–1919) and the Commercialization of Science. Ashgate. p. 474. ISBN 978-0754663225
  21. ^ Trevor H. Hall. (1963). The Spiritualists: The Story of Florence Cook and William Crookes. Helix Press.
  22. ^ Janet Oppenheim (1988). The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. Cambridge University Press. p. 347. ISBN 0-521-34767-X. 
  23. ^ William Hodson Brock (2008). William Crookes (1832-1919) and the commercialization of science. Science, technology, and culture, 1700–1945. Ashgate Publishing. p. 440. ISBN 0-7546-6322-1. 
  24. ^ Owen, Alex (2007). The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 70. 
  25. ^ Doyle 1926: volume 1, 62
  26. ^ Doyle 1926: volume 1, 169 – 170, 249 – 251
General information

Further reading[edit]

  • William Hodson Brock (2008). William Crookes (1832-1919) and the commercialization of science. Science, technology, and culture, 1700–1945. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 0-7546-6322-1. 
  • Trevor H. Hall (1963). The Spiritualists: The Story of Florence Cook and William Crookes. Helix Press. 

External links[edit]