1902 Encyclopedia > Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle
Irish chemist

ROBERT BOYLE, one of the greatest natural philosophers of his age, and one of the founders of the Royal Society of London, was the seventh son and fourteenth child of Richard Boyle, earl of Cork, and was born at Lismore Castle in the province of Munster, Ireland, January 25, 1627. In his earliest years he learnt to speak Latin and French, and he was only eight years old when he was sent to Eton, his father’s friend, Sir Henry Wotton, being then provost of the college. Here he studied about three years, and was next placed as private pupil with the rector of Stalbridge in Dorsetshire, where his father had just taken up his residence. In 1638 after a visit to London he travelled in France accompanied by a French tutor, and studied above a year at Geneva. In the autumn of 1641 he visited Switzerland and Italy, spending the winter of 1641-42 at Florence. Here he studied the works of Galileo, who died near Florence the same winter. On reaching England in 1644, he learnt the death of his father, who had left to him the manor of Stalbridge and estates in Ireland. It was in the following year that be became a member of a society of scientific men, who in consequence of the political agitation of the times used to hold their meetings with as much privacy as possible, first in London and afterwards at Oxford; this became subsequently famous as the Royal Society. In 1646 he settled at Stalbridge, and from that time his whole life was devoted to study, scientific research and experiments, and authorship. After making several visits to his estates in Ireland he took up his abode at Oxford in 1654, and there enjoyed the society of many learned men. He resided at Oxford for fourteen years ; and it was during this period that he made important improvements in the air-pump, and by a long series of experiments with it made various discoveries on the properties of air, the propagation of sound, &c., which are recorded in his voluminous writings. Boyle was at the same time an ardent student of theology, and numbered among his friends the eminent Orientalists Pococke, Hyde, and Clarke, and Dr Thomas Barlow, Bodleian librarian and bishop of Lincoln. At the Restoration he was favourably received at court, and was advised to enter the church; but this he declined to do, alleging that it was not his vocation, and that he believed his writings on religious subjects would have greater weight coming from a layman than from a paid minister of the church. His anxiety to promote the spread of Christianity appeared in various munificent acts. He bore the expense of preparing a Malay translation of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, and of an Irish version of the Bible. He contributed largely to the cost of the Welsh Bible and of a Turkish New Testament, and gave a large sum to the translator of the work of Grotius De Veritate into Arabic. He supported liberally the projects for spreading the Gospel in India and in America, and gave away annually a large sum for charitable purposes. He made his first appearance as author in 1660, by the publication at Oxford of a volume entitled New Experiments, Physico-Mechanical, touching the Spring of Air and its Effects, and of a devotional work entitled Seraphic Love, or some Motives and Incentives to the Love of God.

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Robert Boyle (1627-91),
Irish chemist, often called the father of modern chemistry

When the Royal Society was incorporated (1663) Boyle was named a member of the council. He communicated many important memoirs to the Philosophical Transactions, and, in 1680, was elected president of the society, but from a scruple about oaths he declined this honour. Boyle was at one time deeply interested in alchemy, and carried on experiments on the transmutation of metals, in which Newton also took much interest. It was through his efforts that the statute of Henry IV. cap. 4, against the multiflying of gold and silver was repealed in 1689. After leaving Oxford in 1668 he settled in London; and here he spent the rest of his days, residing in the house of his sister Lady Ranelagh. He was never married. In person he was tall, slender, and of a pale countenance. His constitution was far from robust, and throughout his life he suffered from feeble health and low spirits. While his scientific discoveries procured him wide and lasting renown, his private character and virtues, the charm of his social manners, his wit and conversation, endeared him to a large number of personal friends. As a man of science he was ranked by his contemporaries among the greatest; and although some abatement of this very high estimate has since been admitted, he still holds a place of distinction as the first great investigator who carried out in his labours the principles of the Novum Organum. So earnest was his devotion to Bacon that for many years he could not be persuaded to read the works of Descartes, lest he should be tempted out off his chosen path. His strength lay in. the patient research and observation of facts. He did not display that power of divination of their meaning and of detection of their relations which is the characteristic of genius. His desire was to contribute by his researches, in the true spirit of the Baconian philosophy, to the service of man’s life; and in this be had a large measure of success. The same practical aim is apparent in his theological writings. He was no controversialist, and does not appear to have taken much, if any interest in the great political and religious movements of his day. About 1690 his health began seriously to fail, and he was obliged gradually to withdraw from his public engagements. He discontinued the communication of memoirs of new discoveries to the Royal Society, resigned the post which he had long held of governor of the corporation for propagating the Gospel in New England, and announced by public advertisement his intention no longer to receive visits. The "retired leisure" which he thus secured was devoted to important chemical investigations, the account of which he left "as a kind of hermetic legacy to the studious disciples of that art." His health became worse in 1691. On the 23rd of December of this year his sister, Lady Ranelagh, with whom he had lived for more than twenty years, died; and a week later, December 30, Boyle died himself. His remains were interred in the churchyard of St Martin’s in the Fields, and his funeral sermon was preached by his friend Dr Burnet, bishop of Salisbury, author of the History of the Reformation. By his will he founded and endowed the "Boyle Lectures," the purpose of which is the demonstration of the truth of the Christian religion against atheists, theists, pagans, Jews, and Mahometans.

It is unnecessary to do more than enumerate the more important publications of this laborious investigator. His first work bas already been mentioned. It was followed, in 1662, by The Sceptical Chemist, subsequently reprinted with additions. His Considerations touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy appeared in 1663, and was followed by a second part in 1671. His Experiments and Considerations upon colours, with Observations on a Diamond that Shines in the Dark, also appeared in 1663 -- a treatise which broke ground on a theme afterwards more profoundly treated by Newton.

His next scientific work was entitled, New Experiments and Observations upon Cold (1665). This was followed by the Origin of Forms and Qualities according to the Corpuscular Philosophy (1666); a continuation of his first work on the air (1669); Tracts about the Cosmical Qualities of things, the Temperature of the Subterraneous Regions, and the Bottom of the Sea (1669), a volume which gave rise to much discussion, its statements being founded on experiment; Origin and Virtues of Gems (1672); Essays on the Subtilty and Determinate Nature of Effluvia (1673); tracts on the Saltness of the Sea, the Moisture of the Air, the Natural and Preternatural State of Bodies, Cold, Hidden Qualities of the Air, Celestial Magnets, Hobbes’s Problem of a Vacuum, and the Cause of Attraction and Suction (1674); Experiments and Notes about the Mechanical Origin or Production of Particular Qualities, including a discourse on electricity (1676); the Aerial Noctiluca, or some new Phenomena, and a Process of a Factitious Self-shining Substance (1680) ; New Experiments and Observations upon the Icy Noctiluca, to which is added a Chemical Paradox (1682); a further continuation of his first work on the air (1682); Memoirs for the History of Human Blood (1684); Short Memoirs for the Natural Experimental History of Mineral Waters (1685); Medicina Hydrostatica (1690) ; and Experimenta et Observationes Physicae (1691).

Of his religious and theological writings we may mention, An Essay on Scripture, of which one portion was published in 1663, and the whole at a later date by his friend Sir Peter Pett; Occasional Reflections upon several Subjects (1665), a strange medley of trivialities and grave thoughts, amusing, yet not wholly unwise, which was assailed and ridiculed by Dean Swift in A Pious Meditation upon a Broomstick, in the Style of the Honourable Mr Boyle, and by Butler in An Occasional Reflection on Dr Charlton’s feeling a Dog's Pulse at Gresham College (a neat reprint of the Occasional Reflections was published at Oxford in 1848); The Excellency of Theology, compared, with Philosophy, written in the year of the Great Plague, but not published till 1673; Considerations about the Reconcilableness of Reason and Religion, with a Discourse about the Possibility of the Resurrection (1655); A Discourse of Things above Reason, inquiring whether a Philosopher should admit any such (1681); a tract on the High Veneration Man’s Intellect owes to God (1685); A Free Inquiry into the vulgarly received notion of Nature (1686); and The Christian Virtuoso (1690).

Several other works appeared after his death, and among these were -- The General History of the Air designed and begun; an account of his making the phosphorus, September 30, 1680; and Medicinal Experiments.

An incomplete edition of Boyle’s works appeared at Geneva some years before his death. A useful classified abridgment was published by Dr Peter Shaw, editor of an abridgment of Bacon’s Philosophical Works.

The first complete edition was that of Dr Birch, which appeared, with a Life of the author, in 5 vols. folio, in 1744. Another complete edition was issued in 6 vols. 4to, in 1772.

A portrait of Boyle, by Kerseboom, which is in the possession of the Royal Society, formed part of the National Portrait Exhibition at South Kensington in 1866.

Boyle bequeathed his natural history collections to the Royal Society. [--]

Related Pages: Robert Boyle in the History of Chemistry

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