Stupid Question ™
May 29, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: Forget cloning! What about that real-life Frankenstein in the 1800s who created life, or at least microbes?
A: Andrew Crosse (1784-1855) certainly got cloned-baby levels of attention for his 1837 claim that tiny insects (not microbes) were coming to life in his electrochemical experiments.
In 1836, Crosse, an English gentleman scientist, was conducting a lengthy experiment in which he subjected a mineral solution to a continuous low electric current in the hope of causing formation of silica crystals.
The solution consisted of a fusion of crushed flint, potassium carbonate, silica and trace aluminum, diluted with water and dissolved in hydrochloric acid. This fluid was dripped onto a chunk of “somewhat porous red oxide iron from Vesuvius,” which was kept under a constant electric current, as described in Peter Brookesmith’s “Open Files” and other sources.
Two weeks in, Crosse noticed “a few small whitish excrescences or nipples,” extremely small, sticking off the rock. He thought nothing of it, even when they each exuded seven or eight relatively long “filaments.”
Then things got interesting: “On the twenty-sixth day these appearances assumed the form of a perfect insect, standing erect on a few bristles which formed its tail,” and later moved their “legs.”
A few days later, the insects broke free and after a pause “moved about at pleasure.” After a few weeks, they numbered more than 100 and scurried all over, hiding from direct sunlight and “dying” if they happened to plunge back into the fluid.
Under a microscope, they proved to be highly bristled bugs of two general sizes, with the smaller having six legs and the larger eight.
A French colleague identified them as mites, probably of a new species. A drawing looks much like the common house mite.
Crosse claimed that further, similar experiments produced more of these insects. Scientist W.H. Weekes and the great Michael Faraday claimed to have successfully duplicated Crosse’s insect production, with Weekes saying their number was proportionate to the carbon in the solution.
Crosse was later assailed in the press as a blasphemous Frankenstein. But he never claimed that he created the insects. In fact, his first guess was that his experiment had simply been invaded by preexisting insects. However, a search of his lab found no hidden mites, and it is odd that both Weekes and Faraday were apparently able to attract them. Mites reproducing on acidic material or under silica gel is also strange.
Crosse’s findings seem to have become obscure due to the “Frankenstein” hysteria and the death shortly thereafter of the idea of spontaneous generation of animals from inanimate matter.
In a related mite anomaly, an 1855 British journal noted the discovery of mites inside a piece of Siberian mica, a flaky mineral they had apparently invaded for their own curious purposes. Had they also invaded Crosse’s piece of Vesuvius?