Thursday, April 4, 2019

Victorian eclipse diary

Sir William Crookes, a British scientist and inventor, died a century ago today. He is noted for his discovery of the element thallium, for being a pioneer of vacuum tubes and inventing the Crookes tube, and for being an early exponent of scientific investigation into psychic phenomena. There’s no evidence he was a diarist like many other eminent Victorians, but he did keep a detailed journal during one expedition, in 1870, to North Africa to study a total solar eclipse. This was published, soon after his death, as part of a biography put together by his scientist colleague Edmund Fournier d’Albe.

Crookes was born in London in 1832, the eldest child of a prosperous tailor, originally from the north, and his second wife (who would have 15 more children). He was educated at Prospect House School, Weybridge, and, aged 16, began a scientific career at the Royal College of Chemistry, London. From 1849 to 1854, he was a personal assistant to the College’s director, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, an organic chemist. Influenced by Michael Faraday and others he met at the Royal Institution, he became more interested in optical physics and photography, researching new compounds of the element selenium. He left the Royal College in 1854, taking up a position as superintendent of the meteorological department of the Radcliffe (Astronomical) Observatory in Oxford; and, the following year, he was appointed lecturer in chemistry at the Chester Anglican teachers’ training college. In 1856, he married Ellen Humphrey with whom he had ten children, although only four survived into adulthood.

With an inheritance from his father, Crookes set up his own laboratory in London. Over the years, he became well-known for his pioneering research: among other things, he discovered the element thallium, invented the radiometer and developed cathode ray tubes (such as the Crookes tube). He accumulated 17 patents for inventions (the radiometer, improvements in a spectrum camera, incandescent lamps, and the treatment of water gas); and he was successfully involved in the business exploitation of many of them. Throughout his life, also, he wrote many scientific papers (though he never actually achieved an academic position) and edited scientific journals. Indeed, he was the founder in 1859 of Chemical News and in 1864 of the Quarterly Journal of Science. He was named a fellow of the Royal Society in 1863, was knighted in 1897, and in 1910 received the Order of Merit, among other awards and honours.

Crookes is also well remembered for his forays into the spiritual world. Following the early death of a much-loved brother, Crookes began to attend seances, and to investigate psychic phenomena. He, himself, became convinced that some psychics were genuine, but he failed to persuade scientific colleagues to publish his research (and so published it in his own journals). He joined the Society for Psychical Research, becoming its president in the 1890s; he also joined the Theosophical Society and The Ghost Club, of which he was president from 1907 to 1912. In 1890 he was initiated into the newly-formed Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He died on 4 April 1919. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required), PSI Encyclopedia, and

Some of Crookes’ lab notebooks are held by the Science Museum and some by the Royal Institution. However, the National Archives lists no diaries among his literary remains. Nevertheless, Crookes did keep a diary on at least one journey abroad, in 1870-1871, when he travelled with the Government Eclipse Expedition. A notable team of scientists was dispatched aboard HMS Urgent: it landed one team on Sicily, and Crookes’ group at Oran, Algeria. Their main objective was to use the coming eclipse (on 22 December) to study the sun’s corona. Part of the impetus for the expedition came from the fact that it was known there would be no further total eclipse within easy reach of England for the next 17 years. Poor weather meant that Crookes was unable to carry out his experiments; nevertheless, extensive extracts (some 30 pages) from the diary he kept during the expedition was published in The Life of Sir William Crookes by Fournier D’Albe (T. Fisher Unwin, 1923). This is freely available to read at Internet Archive.

Here are several extracts from Crookes’ diary as found in the biography.

6 December 1870
‘After breakfast walked on deck. A host of young Oxford men, some nearly boys, pressed into service as observers with polariscope. “What is a polariscope?” Favouritism and jobbery.

Urgent a mere shell a week ago. Sudden orders to fit her out. Everything done since Tuesday last. Interior fittings, curtains, beds, sheets, china, glass, stores, etc., all got in red-hot haste. All spoons and forks newly plated. Not cost Government less than £10,000, half of which might have been saved if more time had been given. Most of men and officers come from Duke of Wellington. Everyone strange to ship except Captain Hamilton. This expense, however, will not appear in Estimates. Red tapeism - parsimony in treatment of observers and lavish expenditure of money in other ways.

Professor Newcomb and Mrs. Newcomb (the only lady on board). Conversation as to American eclipse. Two parties in U.S., the Naval Board and the Observatory. The Naval Board report not printed yet. The Observatory report out first. Dr. Coffin the head of the observers. His name not mentioned in my article in Quarterly Journal of Science by accidental omission.

Swinging ship for compass deviation. A long job, some hours. Queen’s ships do not adjust by permanent magnets as in the Mercantile Marine, but by table of errors and deviations.

Telegrams sent to Echo and Nelly. Also long letter to Nelly, posted and sent by officer who superintended swinging of ship.

Carpenter and Noble sent to other papers.

At last moment last night a telegram arrived from Admiralty (in answer to urgent appeal from Huggins) ordering the ship to take the Oran party on to Oran from Gibraltar. This is good news, for I shall be with the Urgent all the time, and shall not have to leave the ship for a smaller one.

Bread and cheese lunch at 12.30. Too early for appetite. [. . .]’

12 December 1870
‘At 2 this morning we passed Cape St. Vincent, and then bowled along well, the wind for almost the first time being of some use. We made this morning 11 knots an hour. In the afternoon we began to look out for Cadiz. Soon white houses and a tali white lighthouse commenced to appear above the waves. “There’s Cadiz,” everyone said, and the ship’s course was altered direct to the lighthouse. As we neared it the houses got higher until we could see a small town, on a low sandy shore appearing. Then a pilot boat put off to us, and a man was seen in it waving his hat violently to attract our attention. “There’s Lord Lindsay,” cried Huggins, who was looking through his aluminium telescope. The word went round, and the ship was stopped. The man came alongside, when, instead of Lord Lindsay, he turned out to be a seedy-looking pilot who could not speak English. We mustered sufficient Spanish, however, to find out that the place was not Cadiz, but that he would take us there. This was a thorough sell, so we gave him a sovereign and bundled him back, and steamed away a little further south. The lighthouse (a new one not on our chart) had misled the master, and the village it seems was Chipiona. As it got dark the lighthouse of Cadiz appeared, but the navigation being difficult, it was thought better to lay to all night at sea. So here we are, some miles from shore, very little wind, and no steam up, rolling about in a helpless manner. We expect to be in Cadiz to-morrow morning by breakfast-time.’

15 December 1870
‘I am greatly disappointed to find that there were no letters for me, and that we shall leave Gibraltar this morning before the P. & O. steamer, which is expected to-day with mails from London of last Saturday, comes in. At about 9 a.m. the gunboat which is to take the Estepona party started, and in about an hour we followed on our way to Oran.

The Mediterranean was as calm and smooth as a pond, scarcely a ripple to be seen, and there was no wind. The appearance of the rock of Gib. is singularly grand viewed from the Mediterranean side, resembling a lion couchant, the head towards Spain and the tail towards Africa. Soon the African coast disappeared, and we skirted the Spanish shore nearly all day. The little wind which now blew was rather chilly, coming as it did from the Sierra Nevada range of mountains, which could be seen in the distance, their tops covered with snow. The day passed without any event at all. My head ached rather badly all day (the result of the dinner last night - or perhaps the penny cigars!), but towards night, after a nap, it got better. The phosphorescence of the sea was very beautiful, the track of the vessel was left in a sheet of silvery flame, and looking down the screw well the whole body of water seemed a mass of light, which illuminated the surrounding objects. I tried to get a spectrum of this light, but could only see that there was little or no red in it.’

16 December 1870
‘We passed close along the African coast all the morning. It is extremely bold and picturesque, high mountains alternating with beautiful green valleys. Not a tree, however, was to be seen anywhere, and the heights were perfectly bare of vegetation. After some delay we at last anchored in Oran bay, and had the usual officials in gold lace on a visit of inspection. Huggins and Admiral Ommaney went ashore, and as the captain thought it better for no one else to leave till they had come back to say it was all right, we were kept prisoners for nearly 4 hours - much to our disgust. At about 4 p.m. we left the ship, and for the first time put our foot on African ground. I was disappointed at the appearance of Oran. It is an inferior edition of a dirty French town, and has all the vices and inconveniences of a low garrison town without much redeeming points of Oriental life. Moors and Arabs and darker gentry there are in abundance, and the quaintness of their costumes, in spite of the dirt and filth about them, is very picturesque. Still there was quite as much to be seen at Gibraltar. The streets of Oran are wide, and there are many good shops. It is quite as large a place as Boulogne, but of course vastly inferior as far as the French life is concerned. From a comparison of the photographs I should say it greatly resembled Scarborough in outward aspect and scenery. On the high ground around are perched forts, and one tremendous hill close at the side of Oran has a large fort on it. Every other man one meets is a Zouave, or Chasseur d’Afrique, and the place is entirely under military rule.

We returned to the ship to dinner, and afterwards went out in a party to see “life” in Oran, which consisted in going into a café chantant of the lowest description, sitting beside the biggest blackguards I ever saw (together with some decentish people), drinking a villainous mixture of coffee and curaçoa, and seeing some highly disgusting dancing, terminating with the can-can. On returning to the ship we had a committee meeting. Little Huggins’s bumptiousness is most amusing. He appears to be so puffed up with his own importance as to be blind to the very offensive manner in which he dictates to the gentlemen who are co-operating with him, whilst the fulsome manner in which he toadies to Tyndall must be as offensive to him (Tyndall) as it is disgusting to all who witness it. I half fancy there will be a mutiny against his officiousness. Wrote to Nelly.’

18 December 1870
‘Cloudy and rainy. We had service on the main deck. Mr. Howlett preached, the text being from Amos viii. v. 9: “And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord God, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day.” The sermon was a very excellent one. In the afternoon walked up to the observatory, and saw how the sappers were getting on with the foundations and instruments. Several of the principal men of the town came to dinner this evening, so we put on full dress and furbished up our French. The speeches were very amusing, and the way in which the Frenchmen mixed their liquors, taking sherry, hock, champagne, moselle, bitter ale, curaçoa, coffee, brandy, and then bitter ale again, was a wonderful sight. The dinner party did not break up till very late.’

19 December 1870
‘Raining, blowing, thundering, and lightning almost all day. Prospects very unfavourable for eclipse. Went up to the observatory tents and worked at the telescope and spectroscope I am to have, it having been decided in committee this morning that Huggins was to have the large telescope and equatorial. On the road home made some purchases at the shop of Moïse Ben Ichou, 22 Rue Philippe. Towards evening the rain, wind, and lightning got much more violent.’

22 December 1870 [part of a very long entry this day]
‘[. . .] At about 11 a.m. I was watching the sun through my opera glass protected by dark glasses, when I detected a distinct indentation a little above the centre, on the right. The eclipse for which we had travelled so many hundreds of miles, and spent so much time, trouble, and money had commenced. Ten seconds afterwards a cloud came over and nothing more could be seen till 11.8, when the advance was clearly visible. At 11.10 thick clouds covered the sun for several minutes. 11.25 sky quite overcast. 11.30 clouds breaking. 11.40 sun visible, and occasionally so till 12.10, when it disappeared behind light fleecy clouds. At 12.15 the sun totally disappeared, and was no more visible till about half an hour after totality. At 12.20 the whole sky was overcast. Here and there a few patches of blue sky could be seen in various parts to windward, and over the landscape patches of sunshine were seen sweeping along as the clouds moved. At 12.28 approximately, at which time totality was to commence, the sky was anxiously scanned for blue patches. One approached, but passed too much to the north, and on going out of the tent at 12.25 I saw that there was not the least chance of the next blue patch coming across our meridian for at least a quarter of an hour, whilst it seemed certain then to pass to the north of the sun. The light was now declining rapidly, and although there was no sign of break in the density of the obscuring clouds, I went to the eye-piece of the instrument and looked in on the chance of seeing something. Not a trace of a spectrum could be seen, and I had to decide rapidly whether to stay there in the absolute certainty of seeing nothing, or to go outside and at all events see something of the general effect of the approaching darkness on the landscape. Had there been the faintest chance of seeing anything with the spectroscope I should have stayed at it, but as it was I decided to go outside, where most of the observers were already. 

On the distant horizon and here and there in the far east gleams of bright light and patches which looked like sunshine were tantalisingly visible. The western horizon was of a dark blue-black, the sky overhead was like indigo. Suddenly a dark purple pall seemed to rise up behind Santa Cruz, the high ground on our west, and rapidly cover us in deep gloom spreading to the east almost as far as the eye could see. The sky overhead looked as if it were crushed down on to our heads, and the sight was impressively awful. The darkness was not so great as I had expected, for at no time was I unable to read small newspaper type, or see the seconds hand of my watch, but the colour of the darkness was quite different from that of the ordinary darkness of night, being of a purple colour. The high range of mountains in the extreme south (about _ miles off), which were out of the line of total phase, were visible the whole of the time, whilst some light fleecy clouds in the north, where the sky was not so thoroughly overcast, showed reflected sunlight all the time. This, however, made our darkness more impressive.

The reappearance of the light was much more sudden and striking than its disappearance. A luminous veil with a comparatively sharp upper boundary shot up from behind the western hills. It passed over us and spread its illumination towards the east before we could fairly realise the fact that the long-expected total phase of the eclipse of 1870 was over without any of our observers seeing anything of it.

Ten minutes after totality Captain Noble and I went to the telegraph office and sent messages announcing the failure of our expedition to the London daily papers. He sent a short message to the Daily News. I sent a message of 19 words to The Times (cost 20 frs. 80 c.), and one of 40 words to the Daily Telegraph (cost, 41 frs. 60 c.). Owing to the rupture of the cable between Gibraltar and Lisbon, the messages had to go through Algiers, Malta, Gibraltar, Madrid, Lisbon, and Falmouth. [. . .]’

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