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Robert Boyle
Who Paved the Way for Modern Chemistry
Dr Subodh Mahanti

“Boyle’s main contribution to chemistry was his insistence on experiment, precision and accurate observation. He devised many analytical tests including the use of vegetable dyes as acid-base indicators and of flame tests to detect metal. The chemist’s concern for the purity of his material began with Boyle.

A Dictionary of Scientists. Oxford University Press, 1999.

“With the publication of The Sceptical Chymist (1661), Boyle prepared the way for a more modern view of chemistry, which put aside alchemical ideas and Aristotelian doctrine of four colours…it was Boyle who changed chemical attitudes and prepared the way for Priestley and Lavoisier to create the Chemical Revolution.”

The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists. Cambridge University Press, (Second Edition, 2002.


“He (Boyle) was, surprisingly, an alchemist, but his alchemy was a logical outcome of his atomism. If every substance is merely a rearrangement of the same basic elements, transmutations should be possible. Modern atomic physics has proved him right.”

Chambers Biographical Dictionary, Centenary Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd., 1997.

Robert Boyle established the study of chemistry as a separate science. In fact among many rightful ontenders for the title “Father of Modern Chemistry” is Robert Boyle. He was the first prominent scientist to perform experiments under controlled conditions and publish his researches with elaborate details concerning procedure, apparatus and observations. His best known scientific publication was The Sceptical Chymist. In this work, which was published in 1661, Boyle discusses the idea of an element. While it is true that Boyle’s idea of an element was somewhat vague but his idea was a clear break with the then erroneously held concept of an element. The first use of the term “chemical analysis” is attributed to Boyle. He used this term in the same sense as we understand it today. He did important work in mechanics, medicine, hydrodynamics and a wide variety of experiments with vacuum pump. Boyle’s most interesting and influential contribution was his “corpuscular or mechanical hypothesis.” This was the fullest and most detailed development of physical atomism up to his time. He was also interested both theoretically and practically in alchemy. His interest in alchemy was governed by his desire to acquire more knowledge of God and the world than by any desire for riches. Boyle was active in the “Invisible College”, an informal body devoted to the “new philosophy”, which in 1663 became the Royal Society. Unfortunately while Boyle’s contribution was very significant in the development of modern chemical thought but today he is remembered solely for Boyle’s Law. Boyle was one of the leading intellectual figures of the seventeenth century. Boyle was a prolific writer. He was a great experimentalist. His scientific interest covered a broad area. Throughout his life Boyle sought to improve the lot of humanity by devising better methods and practices. For example he was interested in the improvement of agricultural methods, in the improvement of medicines and medicinal practice, in the possibility of preserving food by vacuum packing and in many other things. He was involved in a project to distill salt water into fresh at sea. Probably Boyle organized a commercial enterprise that produced chemicals.

He had an abiding faith in his religion, Christianity. He spent time and energy for making the Bible available widely. He got it translated into a variety of languages such as Irish, Turkish, and various native American languages. Boyle had no hesitation in believing, though in a more intellectual realm, that God does help some men acquiring scientific knowledge. In 1663 Boyle wrote: “And though I dare not affirm…that God discloses to Men the Great Mystery of Chymistry by God Angels, or by Nocturnal Visions…yet persuaded I am, that the favour of God does (much more than most Men are aware of) vouchsafe to promote some Mens Proficiency in the study of Nature.” Boyle emphasized the need to have an examined faith. However, in reality he saw “usually, such as are born in such a place, espouse the opinions true or false, that obtain there.” Thus he wrote: “the greatest number of those that pass for Christians, profess themselves such only because Christianity is the religion of their Parents, or their Country, or their Prince, or those that have been, or may be, their Benefactors; which is in effect to say, that they are Christians, but upon the same grounds that would have made them Mahometans, if they had been born and bred in Turkey.” Boyle sincerely believed in miracles. In fact miracles were a crucial factor in his opting for Christianity. He saw clear stamp of God upon the Christian miracles.

Robert Boyle was born at Lismore Castle, Munster, Ireland on January 25, 1627. He was the fourteenth child of his parents’ fifteen children. And being the last child of his parents to survive to adulthood, he was the youngest in the family. His father, Richard Boyle (1566-1643) was the first Earl of Cork. Richard Boyle was immensely wealthy and he is also known as the “Great Earl”. Richard Boyle had left England at the age of 22 and had gone to Ireland. Boyle’s mother Catherine Fenton, was Richard Boyle’s second wife, his first having died within a year of the birth of their first child. Boyle hardly got time to know his parents well. His mother died in childbirth a few weeks after his third birthday. Boyle last saw his father just before he left for a continental tour. At the time Boyle was twelve. In his autobiographical account he reflects on his noble birth that ‘being born heir to a great family is but a glittering kind of slavery’ and ‘is ever an impediment to the knowledge of many retired truths, that cannot be attained without familiarity with meaner persons.’ Commenting on his father, Boyle wrote: “He, by God’s blessing on his prosperous industry, from very inconsiderable beginnings, built so plentiful and so eminent a fortune, that his prosperity has found many admirers, but very few parallels.”

Boyle had a privileged upbringing. Boyle’s parents believed that best upbringing for young children up to the time they began their education could be provided away from their parents. So Boyle was sent away to be brought up in the country. Boyle had no university degree. Boyle was educated at home and then he studied at Eton for four years (1635-38). Boyle alongwith one of his brothers entered Eton in 1635. The two young Boyles lived in the house of the Headmaster John Harrison. When Boyle entered Eton, it was just becoming fashionable as a place where important people were sending their children for studying. Boyle writes that Harrison gave Boyle “a strong passion to acquire knowledge”. Boyle was doing very well at Eton. However, after the retirement of Harrison, Boyle failed to fit in with the educational discipline, Harrison’s successor brought to the school. And finally Boyle and his brother were taken out of Eton in November 1638. After leaving Eton, Boyle came under the tutorship of Isaac Marcombes, a native of Auvergue. Boyle was sent on a Grand Tour of France and Italy (1638-44), accompanied by his brother Francis and Marcombes. In Italy he studied the work of the recently deceased Galileo. During his stay abroad, Boyle’s father got entagled in battle with Irish rebels and he died in September 1643. Boyle spent some time at Geneva and he lived there mainly on his tutor’s earning. In the summer of 1644 he had to sell some of his jewellery to finance his trip to England. When Boyle returned to England, it was in a chaotic state. Since 1642, King Charles was at war with the Parliament and several battles in 1644 left both King and Parliament in disarray. Describing the situation Boyle wrote in a letter: “ [I] got safe into England towards the middle of the year 1644, where we found things in such a confusion, that although the manor of Stalbridge were by my father’s decease descended unto me, yet it was near four months before I could get thither.”

It took quite some time before he could start living at Stalbridge. During this time he lived with his sister Katherine and he also undertook a trip to France to repay his debts to his tutor. Finally he settled down at Stalbridge. Though Boyle had no intention to live long at Stalbridge, he remained there for around six years. At the beginning Boyle engaged himself in devotional writing. He composed early versions of Seraphic Love, The martyrdom of Theodora, and other pious reveries. Subsequently Boyle came in contact with several members of the loosely organized group of technical and utopian writers inspired by Francis Bacon and clustering around Samuel Hartlib.

In a letter written to his old tutor in France in October 1646 Boyle wrote: “As for my studies, I have had the opportunity to prosecute them but by fits and snatches, as my leisure and my occasions would give me leave. Diverse little essays, both in verse and prose, I have taken pains to scribble upon several subjects….The other humane studies I apply myself to, are natural philosophy, the mechanics and husbandry, according to the principles of our new philosophical college…”

About 1649, Boyle became interested in scientific experimentation. Boyle’s first exposure to systematic experimentation occurred at the hands of George Starkey who wrote immensely popular Chrysopoetic treatises under the pseudonym Eirenaues Philalethes. From Starkey, Boyle acquired a full experimental knowledge of Helmontian chymistrty, a discipline that fused mundane chemical pursuits with the quest for such ‘great arcana’ as the universal dissolvent or alkhasa and the Philosopher’s Stone. For this he needed a furnace. However, he could not find one at Stalbridge, a place far enough away from tradespeople who could make such an item. So he ordered one but when it finally arrived, it was completely broken. Eventually a furnace did arrive and Boyle could start his experimenting.

Boyle moved to Oxford in 1654. Here he came into contact with a group of physicians and natural philosophers who encouraged his pursuit of natural philosophy. Among those with whom Boyle interacted were: John Wilkins, John Wallis, Seth Ward and Christopher Wren. At Oxford, Boyle first worked on pneumatics. He got an air pump built for him by Robert Hooke after the type invented by Otto von Guerick (1602-86) in 1654. Assisted by Robert Hooke, Boyle performed a number of pioneering experiments. He showed that air was essential for the transmission of sound, and for the respiration and combustion. He also realized that respiration and combustion exhausted only part of the air. He showed for the first time that Galileo was correct in his assertion that all objects fall at the same velocity in a vacuum. In his most famous experiment on pneumatics, he took a U-shaped tube with a shorter closed end, and a longer open end in which he poured mercury. With the help of this device he could isolate a given volume of gas in the shorter end. When the mercury was level in both ‘limbs’, the gas was under atmospheric pressure. Boyle could increase the pressure by adding more mercury to the longer limb of the Ushaped tube. And by doing so, Boyle found that the volume was halved if the pressure was doubled, reduced to a third if the pressure was tripled and so on. His work on compressibility of air was published in 1660. It was his first major scientific work. It was titled New Experiments Physico- Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects. In the second edition of this work published in 1662, Boyle described the famous law stating that pressure and volume of a gas are inversely proportional that is if the pressure increases, volume would decrease and the vice versa. It became known as Boyle’s Law in Britain and USA but in France it was credited to Edme Mariotte (1620-84), who announced the discovery of the same law that Boyle had announced in 1662. As we know Boyle’s law holds for ideal gas and it can be summarized as PV=k, where k is a constant , and P and V are pressure and volume respectively.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) expressed his astonishment to Christian Huygens (1629-95) over the fact that Boyle did not construct any theory based on his excellent and extensive experimental observations. He wrote that Boyle “who has so many fine experiments, (had) not come to some theory of chemistry after meditating so long on them. Yet in his books, and for all the consequences that he draws from his observations, he concludes only what we all know, that everything happens mechanically. He is perhaps too reserved. Excellent men should leave us even their conjectures; they are wrong if they wish to give only those truths that are certain.”

Some important works of Robert Boyle

1. New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Spring of Air and its Effects
2. Certain Physiological Essays
3. The Sceptical Chymist
4. Some Considerations Touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Phylosophy
5. The Origins of Forms and Qualities
6. The Excellency of Theology, Compar’d with Natural Philosophy
7. Considerations about The Excellency and Grounds of the Mechanical Hypothesis
8. The Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Receiv’d Notion of Nature
9. The Discourse of Things above Reason
10. Disquisition about the Final Causes of Natural Things
11. The Christian Virtuoso
12. Experimental History of Mineral Waters (1685)
13. Of the Reconcileableness of Specific Medicines to the Corpuscular Philosophy (1685)
14. Medicinal Experiments: or a, Collection of Choice Remedies, 1692 (Posthumous)
15. Experiments and Consideration Touching Colours
16. Hydrostatic Paradoxes
17. About the Excellency and Grounds of the Mechanical Philosophy.

Boyle defined the term “element” in Sceptical Chymist (1661): “…certain primitive and simple, or perfectly unmingled bodies; which not being made of any other bodies, or of one another, are the ingredients of which all those called perfectly mixt bodies are immediately compounded, and into which they are ultimately resolved.” Many ideas in the Skeptical Chymist were taken over from Rene Descartes (1596-1650). However, in one respect Boyle fundamentally disagreed with Descartes. For Descartes, the concept of vacuum did not exist. He believed in an all pervading either. However, Boyle rejected the idea of ether as he did not get any experimental evidence for it. Like Descartes, Boyle ones believed that the primary particles move freely in fluids and less freely in solids.

Boyle did not accept various honours offered to him by Charles II such as Provotship of Eton and a peerage. However, he was appointed to the Board of the East India Company and Member in the Royal Company of Mines. It has been reported that Boyle carried out explorations for the Royal Company of Mines for industrial and medical resources. He was granted a forfeited estate in Ireland in 1662. The income form this estate was used by Boyle for the advancement of learning and the dissemination of Christianity. He was appointed Governor of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England in 1661.This position he held until 1689. Robert Boyle died in London on December 30, 1691. He was buried in the Church of Saint-Martin-inthe- Fields next to his sister. However, the church was later demolished and no record was kept as to where his remains were moved.

For Further Reading

  1. Hunter, M., and Davis, E. B. (eds). The Works of Robert Boyle (14 Volumes). London: Pickering and Chatto, 1999-2000.
  2. Canny, N. The Upstart Earl: A Sudy of the Social and Mental World of Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork, 1566-1643. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1982
  3. Hunter, M. “Alchemy, Magic and Moralism in the Thought of Robert Boyle”, British Journal for the History of Science, 23, pp. 387-410, 1990.
  4. Hunter, M (ed). Robert Boyle Reconsidered. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  5. Principe, L. M. The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and his Alchemical Quest. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  6. Wojcik, J. Robert Boyle and the Limits of Reason. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  7. A Dictionary of Scientists. Oxford University Press, 1999.
  8. The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  9. Chambers Biographical Dictionary, Centenary edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd., 1997.