Cromwell Varley FRS, electrical discharge and Victorian spiritualism
University of Exeter. At the time of publication, the author was at the University of Cambridge.
Notes and Records of The Royal Society
Royal Society Publishing
Cromwell Fleetwood Varley is chiefly remembered as a leading Victorian electrical engineer who was closely involved in the testing and laying of the successful transatlantic telegraph cables of the 1860s. Historians of physics principally regard him as a key figure in the 'prehistory' of the electron because in 1871 the Proceedings of the Royal Society published a paper in which he seemed to anticipate the corpuscular nature of cathode rays. For many Victorians, however, Varley was as notable for his spiritualism as for his electrical researches. This paper argues that for Varley spiritualism was one of the most significant contexts of use for the 1871 paper. The latter work sought explicitly to unravel the mystery of the electrical discharge through rarefied gases but also showed the hazy boundary between the invisible and visible and material and immaterial domains. This suggested that one of the invisible powers associated with spiritualism—the 'od' force—might be photographed and rendered scientifically more credible, and also made it easier to understand how imponderable spirits could have apparently material attributes. Although the physical implications of Varley’s 1871 publication were not explored until the 1890s, Varley's 'spiritualistic' uses of it shaped the way in which some late-Victorian scientists investigated the puzzling phenomena of psychical research.
This is a preprint version of an article published in Notes and Records of the Royal Society. The definitive version is available at: http://publishing.royalsociety.org/index.cfm?page=1083