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HomeContents > People > Photographers > William Crookes

Dates:  1832 - 1919
Active:  UK

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for William Crookes
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA)

The only one of twenty-one siblings to display the slightest interest in science, Sir William Crookes emerged as one of the most influential scientists and scientific writers of his generation. As an assistant to William Hoffman at the Royal College of Chemistry, he met Charles Wheatstone and Michael Faraday, whose combined influence directed the young man toward the study of chemical physics. According to Fournier d’Albe’s biography, late in life Crookes recalled: “I was working at photography in 1848, and not long after I had the privilege of being shown the Talbotype process by the master himself. One of my most highly prized relics is a copy of Talbot’s Pencil of Nature.” Crookes worked in Nicolaas Henneman’s London studio, taking some of the earliest stereo photographs for Wheatstone. In 1852 he published his own adaptation of Gustave Le Gray’s waxed-paper process, specially adapted for rapid exposures in the field, in Notes and Queries. As he wrote on page 1 of his Hand Book in 1857, Crookes believed that “the Waxed Paper Process appears to me to be more particularly applicable to the ordinary requirements of the tourist or amateur in general than any other paper process whatever.” In 1854 Crookes became director of the meteorological department at the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford, using waxed-paper negatives to continuously record the findings of instruments. He also took some of the first photographs of the moon. Although Crookes probably took few photographs for himself, he was enthusiastic about the possibilities of the art and in 1857 published A Hand Book to the Waxed Paper Process in Photography. The next year, as editor of the Photographic News, Crookes recalled his early contacts with Talbot and included actual examples of the inventor’s photoglyphic engraving process, understanding that the future of photographic reproduction lay in printer’s ink. Crookes was a mass of contradictions, often as interested in business as he was in science. He lost a brother at sea in the 1870s and became increasingly convinced not only that séances were genuine but that the spiritual “auras” conjured up by mediums could be measured scientifically. Despite the discomfort this new enthusiasm caused among his scientific friends, Crookes did not abandon serious scientific research, and his work on cathode-ray tubes led to the discovery of X-rays and ultimately a complete shift in our understanding of chemistry and physics. 
Roger Taylor & Larry J. Schaaf Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 4 Nov 2012. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
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