William Crookes was a busy man. In an active scientific career spanning more than 60 years, he made significant contributions to the development of scientific photography and spectroscopy, for most of his career in a private laboratory at his London home. Here he identified the element thallium, invented the radiometer and the spinthariscope, and did the work on gas discharges and cathode rays that led to the emergence of modern atomic physics. He acted as an adviser and consultant to local and national government on cattle plague, municipal water quality, food adulteration, sanitation, the productive use of sewage as a fertilizer to improve agricultural yields, explosives for military use and the problem of cataracts among workers in the glass industry (as a result of which he invented sunglasses).
Crookes was also an energetic businessman. He took out 17 patents on various chemical and industrial processes, including improvements in the design of incandescent lamps—he adopted the playfully multi-layered motto ‘Ubi Crux Ibi Lux’, beautifully encapsulating in one tag his scientific and commercial interests and his growing stature as an enlightened man of letters. His other industrial activities included interests in companies exploiting Welsh gold, African diamonds and sewage, and numerous company directorships. He often acted as an industrial and legal consultant and as an expert witness, and was not infrequently involved in litigation on his own behalf or that of his business associates.
In addition to all this, Crookes edited the wide-ranging Quarterly Journal of Science (later a monthly) and in 1859 established a major weekly periodical, Chemical News. This he owned, managed, edited and, often in large part, wrote, for the next 50 years. He used Chemical News, with its peak circulation of 10 000 copies a week, as a platform to air his views on all manner of matters scientific and professional, and to promote, pontificate and pronounce upon the chemical and physical sciences and their practitioners. Alongside this editing and journalistic activity he wrote what became a standard text on methods of chemical analysis and several other money-spinning monographs, and translated several major French and German scientific and technical treatises into English.
Famously, Crookes was deeply interested in spiritualism and occultism alongside his religious faith. He systematically investigated the claims of the leading spiritualists Daniel Dunglas Home, Kate Fox and Florence Cook, and was one of the earliest members of the Society for Psychical Research (and was its president from 1896 to 1899). Although his views earned him the scorn of arch-sceptics and occasionally threatened to embroil him in scandal, he held them all his working life—even if he played them down at the peak of his professional success and public fame when he held high scientific office.
Crookes was elected FRS in 1863 in the wake of the thallium work, and later served on the Council of the Royal Society for many years without missing a meeting. Active in the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Institution and many other scientific societies and institutions, he was knighted in 1897 and awarded the Order of Merit in 1910. Crowning his long career, he was President of the Royal Society from 1913 to 1915—the first and only octogenarian PRS. Long before this he was one of the most well-known and productive men of science in Britain and beyond.
Given this astonishing inventory (which does not even touch on his busy family life), it would clearly be difficult to do justice to such an indefatigable and eclectic scientific worker, journalist and entrepreneur. But William Brock, Emeritus Professor of History of Science at the University of Leicester, manages to cover all these aspects of Crookes's magnificent career comprehensively yet relatively concisely in this, the first full-scale biography of Crookes since Fournier d'Albe's semi-official life and letters, published in 1923 when several key players in the Crookes saga were still alive. Drawing on a huge range of primary and secondary sources, Brock adroitly ties together the many strands of Crookes's life and work into a meaningful and coherent whole.
Unlike some recent scientific biographies, Brock's has no overarching ‘theoretical’ or sociological point to make, no unifying analytical argument through which Crookes's multifarious activities can be understood as expressions of social or professional ‘identity’, ‘self-fashioning’ or some other guiding principle, and no major historiographical reinterpretation of its subject to press. He plays it straight and documents Crookes's life and work meticulously and readably. Nevertheless a few general themes of analytical interest emerge. Brock carefully draws attention, for example, to Crookes's ‘hidden helpers’—the many colleagues, co-workers and family members who assisted him in various (and often unacknowledged) ways to maintain his prodigious output. In particular we learn much about Crookes's successive laboratory assistants, Charles Gimingham and James Gardiner, and their roles in running the scientific shop during his frequent absences. And though Brock does not systematically draw out the more general implications of the commercialization of science theme highlighted in his title, the consistent contextual emphasis on Crookes's career-building and money-making strategies usefully reminds us both of the importance of science pursued outside academe and of the permeability of boundaries between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ science in this period.
In his treatment of Crookes's involvement with spiritualism, Brock nods towards recent historiographical reassessments of Victorian spiritualism, occultism and the like and their relations to ‘orthodox’ science, but does not build systematically on this work to develop a new understanding of Crookes's concerns in this area. He does tantalizingly suggest in passing that Crookes's work on spiritualism helped his scientific work, especially through his researches on the attenuated ‘fourth state of matter’ in gas discharges, which led to the radiometer and other significant developments. A more sustained treatment of this theme might have been rewarding, for at times Brock seems unsure how to deal with the spiritualist material, alternating between explaining it as symptomatic of the times and treating it as an aberration to be rationalized away.
The structure of the book—organized thematically chapter by chapter around Crookes's diverse activities within a broadly chronological framework—leads to some repetition and occasional abrupt discontinuities in narrative flow; however, as Brock acknowledges, this is inevitable when dealing with the sheer range and diversity of Crookes's interests in a single volume. The book is elegantly produced on heavy acid-free paper, but contains a noticeable number of typographical errors, a few of which (such as misspelled names) are unfortunate enough to cause misunderstanding or confusion.
Despite these cavils, Brock's Crookes is a splendid achievement. It will be absolutely indispensable for anyone interested in the chemical and physical sciences and scientific life more generally in Victorian and Edwardian Britain.
- © 2009 The Royal Society