William F. Barrett

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
William F. Barrett
William f barrett.jpg
Born (1844-02-10)10 February 1844
Died 26 May 1925(1925-05-26) (aged 81)

Sir William Fletcher Barrett FRS FRSE MRIA MIEE FPS[1] (10 February 1844 in Kingston, Jamaica – 26 May 1925) was an English physicist and parapsychologist.


He was born in Jamaica where his father, William Garland Barrett, who was an amateur naturalist, Congregationalist minister and a member of the London Missionary Society, ran a station for saving African slaves. There he lived with his mother, Martha Barrett, née Fletcher, and his sister; the social reformer Rosa Mary Barrett. The family returned to their native England in Royston, Hertfordshire in 1848. In 1855 they moved to Manchester and Barrett was then educated at Old Trafford Grammar School.[2]

Barrett then took chemistry and physics at the Royal College of Chemistry and then became the science master at the London International College (1867–9) before becoming assistant to John Tyndall at the Royal Institution (1863–1866).[2] He then taught at the Royal School of Naval Architecture.[2]

In 1873 he became Professor of Experimental Physics at the Royal College of Science for Ireland. From the early 1880s he lived with his mother, sister, and two live-in servants in a residence at Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire). Barrett discovered Stalloy (see Permalloy), a silicon-iron alloy used in electrical engineering and also did a lot of work on sensitive flames and their uses in acoustic demonstrations.[2] During his studies of metals and their properties, Barrett worked with W. Brown and R. A. Hadfield. He also discovered the shortening of nickel through magnetisation in 1882.[2]

When Barrett developed cataracts in his later years, he also began to study biology with a series of experiments designed to locate and successfully analyze causative agents within the eyes. The result of these experiments was a machine called the entoptiscope.[2]

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in June 1899[3] and was also a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Dublin Society. He was knighted in 1912. He married Florence Willey in 1916.[2]

He died at home, 31 Devonshire Place in London.[4]

Psychical research[edit]

Barrett became interested in the paranormal in the 1860s after having an experience with mesmerism. Barrett believed that he had been witness to thought transference and by the 1870s he was investigating poltergeists.[2] In September 1876 Barrett published a paper outlining the result of these investigations and by 1881 he had published preliminary accounts of his additional experiments with thought transference in the journal Nature.[2] The publication caused controversy and in the wake of this Barrett decided to found a society of like-minded individuals to help further his research. Barrett held conference between 5–6 January 1882 in London. In February the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was formed.[5]

Barrett was a Christian and spiritualist member of the SPR.[5] Although he had founded the society, Barrett was only truly active for a year, and in 1884 founded the American Society for Psychical Research before his paranormal research diminished significantly.[2] However, he became president of the society in 1904 and continued to submit articles to their journal, even with his diminished interest in the subject.[2] From 1908–14 Barrett was active in the Dublin Section of the Society for Psychical Research, a group which attracted many important members including Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, T.W. Rolleston, Sir Archibald Geikie, and Lady Augusta Gregory.[6] In 1919 Barrett wrote the introduction to medium Hester Dowden's book Voices from the Void.

Barrett had a special interest in divining rods and in 1897 and 1900 he published two articles on the subject in Proceedings of the SPR.[2] After experimenting with dowsers, Barrett concluded that the ideomotor response was responsible for the rod's movements but in some cases the dowser's unconscious could pick up information by clairvoyance.[7][8] As a believer in telepathy, Barrett denounced the muscle reading of Stuart Cumberland and other magicians as "pseudo" thought readers.[9]


Ronald Pearsall wrote that Barrett was duped into believing spiritualism by mediumship trickery.[10] Edward Clodd criticized Barrett as being an incompetent researcher to detect fraud and claimed his spiritualist beliefs were based on magical thinking and primitive superstition.[11] Joseph McCabe wrote Barrett "talks nonsense of which he ought to be ashamed" as he had poor understanding of conjuring tricks and failed to detect the fraud of Kathleen Goligher.[12]

Helen de G. Verrall gave Barrett's book Psychical Research a positive review describing it as a "clear, careful account of some of main achievements of psychical research by one who has himself taken part in these achievements and speaks to a large extent from personal knowledge and observation."[13] However, in the British Medical Journal the book was criticized for ignoring critical work on the subject and being "a negative assault on scientific method generally".[14]



  1. ^ http://www.royalsoced.org.uk/cms/files/fellows/biographical_index/fells_indexp1.pdf
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Alan Gauld, ‘Barrett, Sir William Fletcher (1844–1925)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 2 Feb 2011
  3. ^ "Library and Archive Catalog". Royal Society. Retrieved 10 December 2010. 
  4. ^ http://www.royalsoced.org.uk/cms/files/fellows/biographical_index/fells_indexp1.pdf
  5. ^ a b Janet Oppenheim. (1985). The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. Cambridge University Press. pp. 137-372. ISBN 0-521-26505-3
  6. ^ Shane McCorristine. (2011). William Fletcher Barrett, Spiritualism, and Psychical Research in Edwardian Dublin. Estudios Irlandeses. Journal of Irish Studies 6: 39-53.
  7. ^ Martin Gardner. (2012 reprint edition). Originally published in 1957. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Dover Publications. pp. 102-103. ISBN 0-486-20394-8 "The first significant "scientific" study of the subject was made in 1891 by Sir William F. Barrett, professor of physics at the Royal College of Science, Ireland. The Dowsing Rod, by Barrett and Theodore Besterman, published in 1926, is one of the leading references on the subject. The book's thesis is that the turning of the rod is due to unconscious muscular action on the part of the dowser, who possesses a clairvoyant ability to sense the presence of water."
  8. ^ Gordon Stein. (1996). The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Prometheus Books. p. 231. ISBN 1-57392-021-5 "Barrett, who believed in telepathy, acknowledged that the dowser's unconscious moving of the rod could be the result of autosuggestion stimulated by cues from the environment. He felt that in some cases, however, the diviner's unconscious was picking up information about the underground water through clairvoyance."
  9. ^ Nicola Bown, Carolyn Burdett, Pamela Thurschwell. (2004). The Victorian Supernatural. Cambridge University Press. pp. 87-108. ISBN 0-521-81015-9
  10. ^ Ronald Pearsall. (1972). The Table-Rappers. Book Club Associates. p. 219
  11. ^ Edward Clodd. (1917). The Question: A Brief History and Examination of Modern Spiritualism. Grant Richards, London. pp. 265-301
  12. ^ Joseph McCabe. (1920). Is Spiritualism Based On Fraud? The Evidence Given By Sir A. C. Doyle and Others Drastically Examined. London: Watts & Co. pp. 59-60
  13. ^ Helen de G. Verrall. (1913). Psychical Research by W. F. Barrett. International Journal of Ethics. Volume 23, No 2. pp. 239-240.
  14. ^ A Study Of Psychical Research. (1912). British Medical Journal. Vol. 1, No. 2667. pp. 308-309.