Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by  Anna Botsford Comstock

Crystal Growth

Teacher's Story

To watch the growth of a crystal is to witness a miracle; involuntarily we stand in awe before it, as a proof that of all truths mathematics is the most divine and inherent in the universe. The teacher will fail to make the best use of this lesson if she does not reveal to the child through it something of the marvel of crystal growth.

That a substance which has been dissolved in water should, when the water evaporates, assemble its particles in solid form of a certain shape, with its plane surfaces set exactly at certain angles one to another, always the same whether the crystal be large or small, is quite beyond our understanding. Perhaps it is no more miraculous than the growth of living beings, but it seems so. The fact that when an imperfect crystal, unfinished or broken, is placed in water which is saturated with the same substance, it will be built out and made perfect, shows a law of growth so exquisitely exemplified as to again make us glad to be a part of a universe so perfectly governed. Moreover, when crystals show a variation in numbers of angles and planes it is merely a matter of division or multiplication. A snow crystal is a six-rayed star, yet sometimes it has three rays.

The window-sill of a schoolroom may be a place for the working of greater wonders than those claimed by the astrologists of old, when they transmuted baser metals to gold and worthless stones to diamonds. It may be a place where strings of gems are made before the wondering eyes of the children; gems fit to make necklaces for any naiad of the brook or oread of the caves.

It adds much to the interest of this lesson if different colored substances are used for the forming of the crystals. Blue vitriol, potassium bichromate, and alum give beautiful crystals, contrasting in shape as well as in colors.

Copper sulphate and blue vitriol are two names for one substance; it is a poison when taken internally and, therefore, it is best for the teacher to carry on the experiment before the pupils instead of trusting the substance to them indiscriminately. Blue vitriol forms an exquisitely beautiful blue crystal, which is lozenge-shaped with oblique edges. Often, as purchased from the drug store, we find it in the form of rather large, broken, or imperfect crystals. One of the pretty experiments is to place some of these broken crystals in a saucer containing a saturated solution of the vitriol, and note that they straightway assert crystal nature by building out the broken places, and growing into perfect crystals. Blue vitriol is used much in the dying and in the printing of cotton and linen cloths. It has quite wonderful preservative qualities; if either animal or vegetable tissues are permeated by it they will remain dry and unchanged.

Potassium bichromate is also a poison and, therefore, the teacher should make the solution in the presence of the class. It forms orange-red crystals, more or less needle-shaped. It crystallizes so readily that if one drop of the solution be placed on a saucer the pupils may see the formation of the crystals by watching it for a few moments through a lens.


A snow crystal.

Photomicrograph by W. A. Bentley.

The common alum we buy in crystal form, however, is very much broken. Its crystals are eight-sided and pretty. Alum is widely used in dyes, in medicines, and in many other ways. It is very astringent, as every child knows who has tried to eat it, and has found the lips and tongue much puckered thereby.

Although we are more familiar with crystals formed from substances dissolved in water, yet there are some minerals, like iron, which crystallize only when they are melted by heat; and there are other crystals, like the snow, which are formed from vapor. Thus, substances must be molten hot, or dissolved in a liquid, or in form of gas, in order to grow into crystals.

Lesson CCXI

Crystal Growth

Leading thought—Different substances when dissolved in water will re-form as crystals; each substance forms crystals of its own peculiar color and shape.

Method—Take three test tubes, long vials or clear bottles. Fill one with a solution made by dissolving one part of blue vitriol in three parts of water; fill another by dissolving one part of bichromate of potash with twenty-five parts of water; fill another with one part of alum in three parts of water. Suspend from the mouth of each test tube or vial, a piece of white twine, the upper end tied to a tooth pick, which is placed across the mouth of the vial; the other end should reach the bottom of the vial. If necessary, tie a pebble to the lower end so that it will hang straight. Place the bottles on the window sill of the schoolroom, where the children may observe what is happening. Allow them to stand for a time, until the string in each case is encrusted with crystals; then pull out the string and the crystals. Dry them with a blotter, and let the children observe them closely. Care should be taken to prevent the children from trying to eat these beautiful crystals, by telling them that the red and blue crystals are poisonous.


1. In which bottle did the crystals form first? Which string is the heaviest with the crystals?

2. What was the color of the water in which the blue vitriol was dissolved? Is it as brilliant in color now as it was when it was first made? Do you think that the growth of the crystals took away from the blue material of the water? Look at the blue vitriol crystals with a lens, and describe their shape. Are the shapes of the large crystals of the vitriol the same as those of the small ones?

3. What is the shape of the crystals of the potassium bichromate? What is the color? Are these crystals as large as those of the blue vitriol or of the alum?

4. What shapes do you find among the crystals of alum?

5. Do you think that vitriol and potassium bichromate and alum will, under favorable circumstances, always form each its own shape of crystal wherever it occurs in the world? Do you think crystals could be formed without the aid of water?

6. How many kinds of crystals do you know? What is rock candy? Do you think you could make a string of rock candy if you dissolved sugar in water and placed a string in it?

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