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Andrew Crosse and the Electrical Origin of life

Updated on May 30, 2015
Andrew Crosse Possible creator of life
Andrew Crosse Possible creator of life

In the 19th century Andrew Crosse, a respected amateur scientist was amazed to find his experiments with electricity had apparently created tiny insects. As a good scientist he tried to see if they were a known species and spent a lot of time trying to ensure insects could not get into his apparatus. Eventually he reported his work to the scientific community and once the press got hold of the news they misrepresented it and that meant he became unpopular in his community and became a recluse.

Humans have always either dreaded or feared the possibility they could create life. The medieval notion of spontaneous generation, that life could arise from nonliving matter, is now regarded as disproved, thought the ultimate origin of life, billions of years ago, had to be from non living matter and, despite the fact it is considered to have taken place over billions of years, the origin of life, like the hard problem of consciousness- how consciousness can arise from unconscious components – remains a mystery.

Andrew Crosse's experiments lead to the admittedly remote possibility that spontaneous generation might actually happen, since his findings have never been explained. Crosse himself assumed the insects were hatched from insect eggs in his equipment and a consensus arose that the insects were cheese or dust mites. One researcher managed to replicate his results but others failed to do so.

Crosse's experiments do not have implications for the medieval notion of the Golem, which involved inspiring life in inert matter not creating it from inert matter, the notion of the Homunculus, which involved growing the miniature human believed to be in spermatozoa to full size, or Roger Bacon's talking brass head, which again involved inspiring life in inert matter.

While it is most likely that Crosse was right to think the experiment had been contaminated by insect eggs further speculation is interesting

The experiments

Crosse was interested in creating crystals from solutions using electricity. He had already produced some 24 minerals in this way. On the 26th day of one such experiment he was puzzled to see a tiny insect. Others emerged and had typical insect behaviour and Crosse identified them as being of the genus Acarus. A local newspaper learned of the incident and later papers spread the story throughput Britain and Europe. Some readers thought he had created the insects, or at least claimed to have done so, and he received angry letters and death threats. The reaction was so intense that he had to become something of a recluse.

Other scientists tried to repeat the experiment. W. H. Weeks took extensive measures to assure a sealed environment by placing his experiment inside a bell jar and got the same results as Crosse, but his work was never published. Later researchers could not replicate Crosse's results.

Crosse's experiment involved passing a weak electric current through a solution. As with brewing beer or making wine this was a slow process, but the pace of life was slower then and while we can imagine Crosse staring at his apparatus for days it is more likely he was doing other things like hill walking, writing poetry or political activism. Be that as it may he wrote

On the fourteenth day from the commencement of this experiment I observed through a lens a few small whitish excrescences or nipples, projecting from about the middle of the electrified stone. On the eighteenth day these projections enlarged, and struck out seven or eight filaments, each of them longer than the hemisphere on which they grew. On the twenty-sixth day these appearances assumed the form of a perfect insect, standing erect on a few bristles which formed its tail. Till this period I had no notion that these appearances were other than an incipient mineral formation. On the twenty-eighth day these little creatures moved their legs. I must now say that I was not a little astonished. After a few days they detached themselves from the stone, and moved about at pleasure”.

and later after taking advice from comparative anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen, he concluded they were cheese mites and assigned them to the genus Acarus.

In the course of a few weeks about a hundred of them made their appearance on the stone. I examined them with a microscope, and observed that the smaller ones appeared to have only six legs, the larger ones eight. These insects are pronounced to be of the genus Acarus, but there appears to be a difference of opinion as to whether they are a known species; some assert that they are not.”


Having a known type of insect emerge from the solution is consistent with the idea that the experiment had been contaminated with insect eggs either from the solution he was using or from the piece of volcanic stone through which it was seeping.

Later experiments eliminated the stone and produced acari in glass cylinders filled with various chemicals in which no trace of insect eggs could be seen. Sometimes they appeared under the fluid and climbed out, but of they fell back they drowned instantly. The Borderlands research article cited below gives much more detail.

Crosse noted that the “insects” or whatever it was he produced looked very similar to the results of some of his experiments but noted the crystals become rigid shining six sided prisms while in the developing insects the crystal like growths became soft and had filaments and eventually moved.

This is purely speculation but perhaps some growths became crystals and others, as a result of some unobservable local fluctuation turned into insects, but the fact they were all of the same genus tends to support the theory the experiment was contaminated.

It is possible to "grow" artificial forms, from dead matter, which simulate living bodies in an uncanny way. Artificial "plants," for example, can be grown (in certain solutions) which, although formed by a purely mechanical process-osmosis-have every appearance of life, and can even imitate the properties and movements of organic cells

The Borderline research article also cites "osmotic growths" produced by Dr. Stephane Leduc of Nantes which present the cellular structure of living matter, but reproduce such functions as the absorption of food, metabolism, and the excretion of waste products.

These “osmotic growths” may be a curiosity but they raise the question of how to define life.

And that is a whole new can of (genuinely living ?) worms.

The Miller-Urey experiment has some parallels to Crosses Experiments
The Miller-Urey experiment has some parallels to Crosses Experiments | Source

The Miller-Urey experiment

This experiment, carried out in 1952 was designed to test the hypothesis that conditions in the early

life of the earth would tend to favour reactions that produced complex organic compounds from simple ones.

The experiment used water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen all sealed inside a sterile 5-litre glass flask connected to a 500 ml flask half-full of liquid water. The liquid water in the smaller flask was heated to make it evaporate, and the water vapour was allowed to enter the larger flask. Continuous electrical sparks were fired between the electrodes to simulate lightning in the water vapour and gaseous mixture, and then the simulated atmosphere was cooled again so that the water condensed and trickled into a U-shaped trap at the bottom of the apparatus.

After a day, the solution collected at the trap had turned pink in colour. At the end of one week of continuous operation, the boiling flask was removed, and mercuric chloride was added to prevent microbial contamination. The reaction was stopped by adding barium hydroxide and sulphuric acid, and evaporated to remove impurities. Paper chromatography revealed the presence of two amino acids and examination of sealed vials from the original experiment, in 2007, revealed the presence of at least 20 amino acids, more than occur naturally. Although evidence now suggests Earth's early atmosphere may not have had the same composition as used in this experiment similar experiment produce simple and complex compounds under various conditions.

The interesting point is that the Miller-Urey experiment and Crosse's experiments both involved passing an electric current through a solution. The Miller-Urey experiment produced organic compounds, but it is not clear what the Crosse experiments produced other than controversy and confusion.

Summing up

Experiments by a number of scientists from 1688 onwards disproved the medieval notion, based on Aristotle, that life could emerge from non living matter. Crosse's experiments leave a hint of welcome uncertainty over this disproval, though experimental contamination is still the best bet and, taken together with the Miller-Urey experiment suggest a role for electricity in the creation of life, the ultimate origin of which, like the origin of consciousness, remains a mystery. At the same time Leduc's “osmotic growths” lead to questioning the definition of life.

There is fertile ground for future research in trying to replicate Crosse's experiments with modern techniques, and for philosophers to debate the meaning, or rather the definition of life.

Also of interest, though out of scope here, is the reaction to press reports of Crosse's experiments, which, since human nature, especially that of journalists, has not changed, which shows how visceral reactions can be stimulated by careless journalism, a fact exploited by politicians of all stripes ever since.


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