Was Frankenstein inspired by the Somerset inventor Andrew Crosse?
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 April 2020
Dene Bebbington recounts the work of Fyne Court’s notorious scientist
It has been rumoured that Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein was inspired by Somerset electrical experimenter Andrew Crosse. Although this is unlikely, Crosse did experiments which resulted in the apparent creation of mites.
As a boy Crosse was not averse to mischief. At school he liked to make fireworks, and in a letter admitted the danger of it after nearly setting the school house on fire. His rebellious nature went too far when he joined other boys demanding longer school holidays. A plan was hatched to barricade a schoolroom and defend themselves to the death with muskets. Their plot was thwarted and somehow Crosse avoided punishment, unlike others who were expelled or flogged.
Despite getting into trouble he was academically successful and became Head Boy at Dr. Seyer’s School in Bristol. His interest in electricity came about accidentally when he sloped off to a tavern to eat boiled beef since the school meals were insufficient. One day he spotted a syllabus for a natural science course which included electricity. He subscribed to the course after gaining permission from Dr. Seyer.
His early use of electricity was deployed in elaborate pranks on younger boys by shocking them with a charge he’d stored in a Leyden jar – a early type of capacitor. This earned him the nickname ‘Conjurer’ among the pupils.
Crosse took over management of the family’s Fyne Court estate at Broomfield after his mother’s death in 1805. During a stint in London he met George Singer who also experimented with electricity. A good friendship developed such that Singer supplied Crosse with equipment for generating static electricity and storing it in Leyden jars.
In those days most people didn’t know about or understand electricity. Flashes and loud bangs created by Crosse harnessing atmospheric electricity through a wire thousands of feet long scared the locals. The experiments were dangerous too, he was lucky to only experience non-fatal shocks. His reputation led to a new nickname of ‘The Thunder and Lightning Man’. The estate suffered from less poaching compared to others, one fortunate side-effect of his work.
Crosse was ahead of his time in some respects. Besides having fairly liberal moral and political views, in 1816 he made the prescient comment that ‘by means of the electric agency we shall be enabled to communicate our thoughts instantaneously with the uttermost parts of the earth’.
His notoriety spread from local people to learned circles through his curiosity about how crystals formed in caves. Bizarrely, in specific conditions mites appeared in his crystal growing experiments during 1836. Initially he discussed this with friends and scientific colleagues, but news of the mites was reported in the Somerset County Gazette after Crosse showed his experiment to Edward Cox from the newspaper.
It didn’t take long for the mites to also be reported in special interest magazines, and national and continental newspapers. The news sparked consternation among the public with one person claiming that Crosse was ‘a reviler of our holy religion’.
Yet Crosse made no claims as to how the mites had been produced, he wrote that ‘I have given no opinion whatsoever to the cause of their production . . . I do not see how it is possible to form an opinion on the matter, or to say whether the electric agency is or is not the secondary cause or acceleration of their birth’.
He kept records of the experiments in which mites appeared and sent samples to Richard Owen (a comparative anatomist and palaeontologist) to examine. Owen thought they were common cheese mites, as did others he showed the samples to.
Though Crosse was passionately involved with electricity he also had an artistic side, often writing poems to express his feelings. One of his friends was the renowned Romantic school poet Robert Southey.
In May 1855 Crosse suffered a stroke affecting the left side of his body. He was able to speak and even recite his own poetry, but by July his condition had worsened and he passed away on the 6th of July.
Crosse holds a curious place in the annals of electrical discovery. The mystery of how mites were a by-product of his experiments may never be solved. He was no real life Frankenstein. As a god-fearing man would have been appalled at the thought.