Robert Boyle (1627-1691)

Robert Boyle

    Robert Boyle is the most influential Anglo-Irish scientist in history.  He played a key role in the history of science by establishing the experimental method, on which all modern science is based (Mollan).  Also, with his assistant Robert Hooke, he began pioneering experiments on the properties of gases, including those expressed in Boyle's law.  He demonstrated the physical characteristics of air, showing that is is necessary in combustion, respiration, and sound transmission.  He also wrote The Sceptical Chymist in 1661, in which he attacked Aristotle's theory of four elements.  This was an essential part of the modern theory of chemical elements.


    Robert was born on January 25, 1627 to a Protestant family in Lismore, Ireland.  He was the youngest of fourteen children.  His father was Richard Boyle, First Earl of Cork.  Richard came to Ireland from England in 1588 at the age of 22.  He was appointed clerk of the council of Munster by Elizabeth I in 1600 (Robert).  At one point he was imprisoned for embezzlement and theft, but he managed to receive a royal pardon, and went on to accumulate a huge fortune and advance his social standing and political influence (Mollan).  He was a very successful man and Robert grew up in a very noble and high-class life.   Robert’s mother, Catherine Fenton, was Richard’s second wife, his first having died within a year of the birth of their first child.  When Richard married the well connected Fenton she was 15 and he was 37.  Richard was in his 60’s and Catherine in her 40’s when Robert was born (Robert).

     Robert was born into an affluent English aristocratic family and received a conventional gentleman's education (Clulee).  In a brief autobiography of his early life, Robert paints himself as being different from the other children in his family.  He says he was rather self-righteous, preferring to study rather than play or do other normal boyish activities.  Robert wrote that he was very much his father’s favorite (Mollan).  Robert’s parents believed that the best upbringing for young children, up to the time they began their education, could be provided away from their parents.  Robert was sent away to be brought up in the country while his father continued to aim for higher political successes (Robert).  After his mother died Robert returned from his stay with his country nurse and rejoined his family.  He went to school, along with one of his older brothers, at Eton College in England in 1635 when he was 8 years old (Sargent, 23).  Eton was becoming a fashionable place for important people to send their sons.  During his time at Eton, Boyle’s education was going very well.  His fellow students and the headmaster, John Harrison, considered him very popular. The two young Boyle brothers lived with Harrison (Pilkington, 31).

    All went well until Harrison retired as the school’s headmaster.  After that, Boyle seemed unable to fit in with the educational discipline the new headmaster brought to the school (Robert).  Seeing his son’s progress slowing, Richard took his sons away from Eton in November of 1638.  After he left Eton, Robert was tutored privately by someone his father hired.  At the age of 12, he was sent on a grand tour of Europe.  He traveled from Dieppe to Paris, then to Lyon and then to Geneva.  While there he studied with a private tutor.  Some of his studies included French, Latin, rhetoric, and religion.  He also played tennis and fenced while there.  But most importantly he began to study mathematics.

Early Adulthood

    In September of 1641, he and his tutor went to Venice, and then by the beginning of 1642 they were in Florence.   While in Florence he was allowed to visit the famous Bordellos, though he claims he went to them out of “bare curiosity” (Mollan).  Also while there, Galileo died in his villa in Arcetri, near Florence, while Boyle was living in the city.  He was much influenced by this event and carefully studied Galileo’s works (More, 48).  With his Protestant background, Boyle had sympathy for Galileo and his treatment by the Roman Catholic Church.  He became a strong supporter of his philosophy and in this new approach to studying the world through mathematics and mechanics (Robert).

    By May of 1642 Boyle and his tutor were in Marseilles waiting for money from Boyle’s father so that he could finally go home.  The money did not arrive.  Robert’s father was having trouble with a rebellion in Munster that was fully occupying his time and his money.  His father simply sent Robert a letter explaining this to him (More, 50).  Boyle returned to Geneva and lived mainly on his tutor, Marcombe’s earnings.  Robert was still in Geneva when his father died in September of 1643.  In the summer of 1644 he sold some jewelry and used the money to finance his trip to England (Robert).  When Robert went back to England, he lived with his sister, Katherine, for four and a half months (More, 53).  She was thirteen years older than he was.  In March 1646, after he made a return trip to France to repay his debts to his tutor, he moved into his new home in Stalbridge.  He remained there for six years.

    In 1649 Boyle successfully set up a laboratory at his house in Stalbridge, and the experiments that this enabled him to carry out seem immediately to have fascinated him to an extent that transformed his career.  Writings that he composed from the summer of 1649 onwards show enthusiasm for experimental knowledge that had earlier been missing and from which was to remain for the rest of his life.  He showed a preoccupation with collecting data about 'effluvia' and other natural phenomena that foreshadows his later interest (Hunter).

The Royal Society

    Boyle was a founder of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge in 1660.  It was formed after the Restoration of Charles II and was granted a royal charter in 1662.  The society had roots that dated all the way back to 1645 though, when a number of people with scientific interests held meetings at Gresham College in London (Boyle 8).  At that time it was called the “Invisible College”.  This provided Boyle's only contact with the world of science while he lived a somewhat lonely life at Stalbridge.  He always looked forward to his visits to London where the members of the Royal Society always welcomed him warmly. He published his results on the physical properties of air through this Society.  In 1653 Boyle met John Wilkins, the leader of the Invisible College in London.  He strongly encouraged Boyle to join him in Oxford and invited him to live in the College.  Boyle did go to Oxford in 1655 but he declined the invitation to live at the college (O'Conner).  His work in chemistry was aimed at establishing it as a mathematical science based on a mechanistic theory of matter.  Boyle was one of the first to extend the application of mathematics to chemistry which he tried to develop as a science whose complex appearance was merely the result on simple mathematical laws applied to simple fundamental practices (Robert).

    The Royal Society still exists today as the oldest continuous scientific society in the world.  It is still located in London and has more than a thousand active members (Boyle 8). The motto of the society is "Nullius in Verba", which means "nothing in words".  In other words they are saying that all science should be experimentally based.  In 1680, Robert was elected president of the Society but he declined it because of conflicts between the oath of the office and his religious beliefs (Blatchley).  For Boyle, though, there was no conflict with religion and a mechanistic world, he once said:

        ...for him a God who could create a mechanical universe-who could create matter in motion, obeying certain laws out of which the universe
        as we know it could come into being in an orderly fashion-was far more to be admired and worshipped than a God who created a universe
        without scientific law (O'Conner).

    Not only did Boyle's deep theism inform his outlook in natural philosophy, as in life in general; in addition, it may be argued that the obsessiveness which he showed in his pursuit of his goals grew directly out of the religious imperatives which dominated his life (Hunter).

Boyle's Law

PV=k, where k is constant and the temperature is constant

    Boyle made important contributions to physics and chemistry and is best known for Boyle’s Law (sometimes called Mariotte’s Law) describing and idea gas.  Boyle's Law states that, at constant temperature, the pressure of a gas varies inversely with its volume.   This law appears in an appendix written in 1662 to his work New Experiments Physio-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects in 1660 (Hunter).  This was a result of three years of experimenting with the air pump with the help of Robert Hooke who he employed as an assistant.  Hooke had designed the pump and when Boyle used it he discovered a whole series of important facts.  He showed that sound did not travel in a vacuum, proved that flame required air, as did life, and he investigated the elastic properties of air (Robert). The 1662 appendix did not only contain Boyle's law, it also contained a defense of Boyle's work with the vacuum.  Many scientists had argued that a vacuum could not exist and claimed that Boyle's results obtained with the vacuum pump must be the result of some as yet undiscovered force (O'Conner).

The Sceptical Chemist (1661)

Sceptical Chemist

     Boyle's most famous book was The Sceptical Chemist (1661).  In this book he sought to educate the 'chymists' in the need for a more philosophical approach in their study of nature (Hunter).  He argued against Aristotle’s view of the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water.  He said that matter was composed of corpuscles which themselves were differently built up of different configurations of primary particles (Hunter).  He took many ideas from Descartes, but in one respect he fundamentally disagreed with him.  Boyle’s ideas that the primary particles moved freely in fluids, less freely in solids, followed Descartes.  However Descartes did not believe in a vacuum, instead he believed in an all-pervading ether.  Boyle had conducted many experiments, which led him to believe that a vacuum could exist and, having found no experimental evidence of ether, rejected that idea.  He did follow Descartes’ overall belief that the world was basically a complex system governed by a small number of simple mathematical laws (Robert).

    He also wrote Experiments and considerations touching colours in 1664 but this was not so successful.  Boyle was prepared to acknowledge that Hooke’s work of 1665 was superior and he completely acknowledged that Newton’s ideas from 1672 should replace his own.

Boyle's Other Works

    Boyle wrote many other books and essays during his time at Oxford.  Some of these include Certain Physiological Essays (1661), Some Considerations touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy (1663, 1671), Experiments and Considerations touching Colours (1664), New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold (1665), Hydrostatical Paradoxes (1666), and the Origin of Forms and Qualities (1666).  These works were taken up and championed by the newly founded Royal Society.  Boyle's methods became exemplary of the empirical method that the Society espoused (Hunter).

    Later in his life, after he started to gain some popularity, he wrote many other books.  Some of these included Experiments, Notes & etc. about the Mechanical Origin or Production of Divers Particular Qualities (1675) and Experiments and Considerations about the Porosity of Bodies (1684) and his Experimenta & Observationes Physicae (1691) were some of these.  In addition, in the 1670s, Boyle published a variety of shorter more controversial treatises, including such more speculative writings as his Of the Systematical or Cosmical Qualities of Things (1671), while the 1680s saw the publication of a number of medical works by him, including his Memoirs to the Corpuscular Philosophy (1685) and his Medicina Hydrostatica (1690).  These works drew to a significant extent on work that he had done earlier, some of it while still at Oxford.

    Also, during the last two decades of his life he wrote on philosophical and theological topics.  Some of these he had started in the 1660s but had put aside.  These include his Excellency of Theology, Compar'd with Natural Philosophy (1674) and also his important Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Reciev'd Notion of Nature (1686).  The latter was one of a number of works published in the final decade of his life in which Boyle presented his mature reflections on major theological and philosophical issues.  More of these include Things above Reason (1681) and the Christian Virtuoso (1690) (Hunter).  Boyle wrote up until his death on December 31, 1691 in London (Westfall).

Works Cited

Blatchley, Ronald and Julie Shepelavy.  Robert Boyle:  Mighty Chemist.  25 October, 2001.

Clulee, Nicholas, H.  Robert Boyle.  October 30, 1997.  MTU.  25 October, 2001.

Hunter, Michael.  The Robert Boyle Project.  September 25, 2001.  University of London.
    21 October, 2001.

Mollan, Charles. Irish Research Scientists’ Association:  Some Irish Scientific Lives:
    Robert Boyle (1627-1691).  June 14, 1999.  IRSA. 22 October, 2001.

More, Louis Trenchard. The Life and Works of The Honorable Robert Boyle. New York:
    Oxford University Press, 1944.

O'Conner, J.J. and E.F. Robertson.  Robert Boyle.  January 2000.  University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
    22 October, 2001.

Pilkington, Roger. Robert Boyle:  Father of Chemistry. Great Britain:  Butler and Tanner
    Ltd., 1959.

Principe, Lawrence M.  The Aspiring Adept:  Robert Boyle and his Alchemical Quest.  New
    Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1998.

Robert Boyle.  28 October, 2001.

Shapin, Steven and Simon Schaffer. Leviathan and the Air-Pump:  Hobbes, Boyle and the
    experimental life. New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1985.

Sargent, Rose-Mary. The Diffident Naturalist:  Robert Boyle and the Philosophy of
    Experiment.  Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Terhakopian, Artin.  Robert Boyle.  Uniformed Services University of Health.  29 October, 2001.

Westfall, Richard S.  Robert Boyle.  Indiana University.  27 October, 2001.