Sir William Crookes' Diamond Microscope Slides
An important group of six slides, apparently from the personal collection of Sir William Crookes, world famous Chemist and Physicist. Crookes, the much honoured scientist-personality, original experimenter and investigator, conducted pioneering work with vacuum tubes, inventing the Crookes tube and the Crookes radiometer. He was also discoverer of the element Thallium and made important studies in the new science of radioactivity in the early 1900s. He was President of The Royal Society 1913-1915.
The mounts also form a remarkable record of Crookes' experimental attempts to create synthetic diamonds as well as offering evidence for his theories on microscopic diamonds contained within the structure of meteors, specimens which he achieved by dissolving a 5lb fragment of a Canyon Diablo meteorite in acid. These slides preserve historically significant samples from one of the most famous geological sites in the United States, taken at a time when investigation into the scientific importance of the Canyon Diablo impact was in its infancy.
Crookes delivered a lecture at the Royal Institute in Summer 1897 on the subject of synthetic diamonds, which proved to be immensely popular, partly due to the closeness in timing to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. It may be no coincidence that 1897 was also the year in which Crookes received his knighthood, "in recognition of the eminent services he had rendered to the advance of scientific knowledge", receiving confirmation of the award on June 18th of that year. His lecture was subsequently serialised in The Chemical News.
Taking 14 days to produce, the extraordinary and highly dangerous processes involved in creating the synthetic diamond mounts in the laboratory were described in Crookes' Royal Institution lecture from 1897. Attempts to reproduce the most important aspects of their production before a live audience met with disaster and requests by Crookes to make further attempts were refused on account of the dangerous procedures involved. Harlow (1998), Hazen (1999) and Brock (2008) state that no synthetic diamonds from any of Crookes experiments survive, or indeed those of Moissan, whose methods Crookes was inspired by.
Crookes' book, "Diamonds", was published in 1909, in which his attempts to create artificial diamonds and his observations on his Canyon Diablo meteorite samples are extensively referenced. Crookes was of the firm belief that meteors contained microscopic diamonds and had evidence of this from samples he obtained from Canyon Diablo, which he prepared by dissolving in acid.
Blue Ground residue was unexpectedly found to be a rich source of diamonds in the Kimberley mines of South Africa, after a majority of the Yellow Ground finds had been exhausted. Crookes spent much time in Africa, studying the geology of the mines and acting as advisor to the excavations. He delivered a lecture on the Kimberley mines at the Imperial Institute in late 1896.
The steamship SS Roddam was the only vessel of eighteen in the harbour of St Pierre to escape the 1902 eruption of Mt Pelee. The town and harbour were destroyed and the population of over thirty thousand perished, as did more than half the crew of SS Roddam. It was said to be a "dying crew" that took her out to safety.
The volcanic nature and crystalline forms within the dust was no doubt of great interest to Crookes in connection with his studies on geological diamond formation.
The Volcanic Dust Slides
Geological Society President Prof. T.G.Bonney exhibited two slides before the society of London in 1902: one of volcanic dust from the deck of SS Roddam and a second, related sample from the eruption of Soufriere, St Vincent, which occured just hours before the Mt Pelee eruption in 1902, devastating the local Carib population, dooming their culture to extinction. Both slides were received from Sir William Crookes. It is possible, indeed likely, that the two slides here are those exhibited before the society over 110 years ago.
Bonney was president of the Geological Society between 1886 and 1888 and president of The Mineralogical Society. Lake Bonney in Antarctica is named after him.
It is surprising that Bonney presented these slides little more than one month after the eruption, and somewhat poignant to observe that the samples were prepared by Crookes shortly before the untimely death of his eldest son in June 1902.
A lecture delivered at the Royal Institution, June 11th 1897. Printed in Nature, Aug 5th 1897.
Diamonds. Sir William Crookes. 1909.
The Life of Sir William Crookes. Edmund Edward Fournier D'Albe. 1923
The Diamond Makers. Robert M. Hazen. 1999
William Crookes and the Commercialisation of Science. William Hodson Brock. 2008.