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Cromwell Varley -Scientist & Spiritualist


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Cromwell Varley was born in 1828 in London, the second of ten children born to Cornelius and Elizabeth Varley. Along with his brothers Samuel and Frederick, he became an inventor and engineer who worked with telegraphy.

Varley was hired by the Electric Telegraph Company in 1846, promoted to chief engineer for the London area in 1852, and for the entire company by 1861. He created techniques and instruments for “fault-finding” which improved performance of the telegraph. When the first transatlantic telegraph cable failed in 1858, he was appointed to an investigative committee to examine the failure. He developed improvements which led to the success of the second cable which was laid in 1865.

Varley married Ellen Rouse in 1855 and they had two sons and two daughters. In the late 1850s, he used hypnotism to entrance Ellen. While she was in a trance state, she was able to see remotely, and communicate with others through telepathy.  As spiritualism grew popular, Ellen began to hold séances where she communicated via a telegraphic code of raps on furniture to those who had passed to the spirit world.  Her séances convinced Varley that there were ‘invisible agents’ at work in the world that science hadn’t identified.

Varley sat with D.D. Home who had the ability to move objects at a distance. He tested his hypothesis that table rapping and other phenomena were the result of an electrical force and found that it was not the case. He also accompanied physicist William Cookes to measure psychic phenomena with a galvanometer.  Many of the manifestations from séances were luminous and immaterial, but could affect matter.  Varley concluded that were particles or ‘atoms’ that couldn’t be perceived.

Varley’s experiments in the spiritualist movement inspired a paper that he published in 1871. He suggested that cathode rays were streams of particles of electricity caused by the collision of those particles in the cathode ray tube. He was not able to prove this, but was a man ahead of his time. Historians regard him as a key figure in the discovery of the electron.

Varley continued to work, trying to unravel the mystery of the electrical discharge through rarefied gases.  He showed there was a hazy boundary between the invisible and visible and thought the invisible powers associated with spiritualism might be an ‘od’ force. This would explain how spirits could interact with the physical world. He suggested that photography might be a way to record the actions of this force. Varley’s early ideas influenced the way in which some late-Victorian scientists investigated psychic phenomena.

Varley was well respected in his field. He was elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1861, and a fellow of the Royal Society in 1871. He was considered a credulous investigator of spiritualistic and other psychic phenomena. Unfortunately, Varley died at the age of 55 at Cromwell House, Bexley Heath, Kent in 1883 before he could advance his research.

Additional Reading:

“Evidence of Mr. Varley”, in Report on spiritualism of the committee of the London Dialectical Society (Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, 1871)

Noakes, Richard Noakes (2007) “Cromwell Varley FRS, electrical discharge and Victorian spiritualism.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol 61, No 1. Royal Society, London.

https://allaboutheaven.org/sources/varley-c-f/190

 

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