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Sir William Fletcher Barrett

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Sir William Fletcher Barrett

For other people of the same name, see William Barrett (disambiguation).
William Fletcher Barrett
Born (1844-02-10)10 February 1844
Died 26 May 1925(1925-05-26) (aged 81)

Sir William Fletcher Barrett (10 February 1844 in Kingston, Jamaica – 26 May 1925) was an English physicist and parapsychologist.


He was born in Jamaica where his father, William Garland Barrett, who was an amateur naturalist, Congregationalist minister and a member of the London Missionary Society, ran a station for saving the souls of emancipated African slaves. There he lived with his mother, Martha Barrett, née Fletcher, and his sister; the social reformer Rosa Mary Barrett. The family returned to their native England in Royston, Hertfordshire in 1848. In 1855 they moved to Manchester and Barrett was then educated at Old Trafford Grammar School.[1]

Barrett then took chemistry and physics at the Royal College of Chemistry in London and then became the science master at the International College, London (1867–9) before becoming assistant to John Tyndall at the Royal Institution (1863–1866).[1] He then taught at the Royal School of Naval Architecture.[1]

In 1873 he became Professor of Experimental Physics at the Royal College of Science for Ireland. From the early 1880s he lived with his mother, sister, and two live-in servants in a residence at Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire).[2]

Barrett discovered Stalloy (otherwise known as Permaloy), a silicon-iron alloy used in electrical engineering and also did a lot of work on sensitive flames and their uses in acoustic demonstrations.[1] During his studies of metals and their properties, Barrett worked with W. Brown and R. A. Hadfield. He also discovered the shortening of nickel through magnetisation in 1882.[1]

Barrett became interested in the paranormal in the 1860s after having an experience with mesmerism. Barrett believed that he had been witness to thought transference and by the 1870s he was investigating poltergeists.[1] In September 1876 Barrett published a paper outlining the result of these investigations and by 1881 he had published preliminary accounts of his additional experiments with thought transference in the journal Nature.[1] The publication caused controversy and in the wake of this Barrett decided to found a society of like-minded individuals to help further his research. To this aim he founded to Society for Psychical Research (SPR) between 5–6 January 1882.[1]

Barrett was one of the few spiritualist members of the SPR. According to Ronald Pearsall, he was duped into mediumship by fraud.[3] Although he had founded the society, Barrett was only truly active for a year, and in 1884 founded the American Society of Psychical Research before his paranormal research diminished significantly.[1][4] However, he became president of the society in 1904 and continued to submit articles to their journal, even with his diminished interest in the subject.[1] From 1908–14 Barrett was active in the Dublin Section of the Society for Psychical Research, a group which attracted many important members including Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, T.W. Rolleston, Sir Archibald Geikie, and Lady Augusta Gregory.[5] In 1919 Barrett wrote the introduction to medium Hester Dowden's book Voices from the Void.

Barrett had a special interest in divining rods and in 1897 and 1900 he published two articles on the subject in Proceedings of the SPR, the society's magazine.[1] After experimenting with dowsers, Barrett concluded that the ideomotor response was responsible for the rod's movements.[1]

When Barrett developed cataracts in his later years, he also began to study biology with a series of experiments designed to locate and successfully analyse causative agents within the eyes. The result of these experiments was a machine called the entoptiscope.[1]

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in June 1899[6] and was also a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Dublin Society. He was knighted in 1912. He had married Dr Florence Willey in 1916.[1]


  • Practical physics; an introductory handbook for the physical laboratory. London, Percival and Co., 1892.
  • On the threshold of a new world of thought; an examination of the phenomena of spiritualism. London, Paul, 1908.
  • Psychical research. (1911) New York: H. Holt (Volltext)
  • Swedenborg: the savant and the seer. (1912) London: Watkins
  • On the threshold of the unseen; an examination of the phenomena of spiritualism and of the evidence for survival after death. (1917) London, K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & co. (Volltext)
  • with Theodore Besterman: The divining-rod; an experimental and psychological investigation. (1926) London, Methuen & co (Volltext)
  • Deathbed Visions. (1926) Methuen & co. ltd.


  • This article incorporates text from The Modern World Encyclopædia: Illustrated (1935); out of UK copyright as of 2005.

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