Robert Boyle 1627-1691
“If tthee ttempeerratturrre rrremaiiinss cconsstantt tthee voollumee oof a ggiiveen masss oof ggass iiis iiinveerrseelly prrropoorrtiiionalll tto tthee
Iff th e teempera tu ee eema n s consttant th e volu me off a giv en masss off ga s ss n versselyy p ooportt oona too th e
I h mp a u ma n n an h v um a v n ma a nv p p na h
absoo u tee p eesssu ee””
ab u p u
Birth and family life.
Robert Boyle was born in Lismore Castle on January 25th 1627. He was the seventh son and 14th child of
Richard Boyle, The Great Earl of Cork. Much of his early life is portrayed in an autobiographical tract
entitled “An account of Philaretus 1 during his Minority.” Commenting with pleasure on his position in the
family Boyle states:
“For as on the one side, a lower birth would have too much exposed him to the inconveniences of
a mean descent, which are too notorious to need specifying; so on the other side, to a person,
whose humour indisposes him to the distracting hurry of the world, the being born heir to a great
family is but a glittering kind of slavery, whilst obliging him to a public entangled course of life, to
support the credit of his family, and tying him from satisfying his dearest inclinations, it often
forces him to build the advantages of his house upon the ruins of his own contentment.” 2
He was fostered locally and provided with a “coarse but cleanly diet,” and while his father had claimed this
as his unique initiative such fosterage had for centuries been a common feature of Irish life.
He developed a stammer at an early age, possibly in consequence of copying neighbourhood children and
later suggested this was a “just judgment upon his derision.” Interestingly his sister Mary, who later
became a major figure in English Puritanism, is at this time described as ‘unrewly.’
The dangers of travel in the 17th Century is vividly described by Boyle in and incident which occurred at
Four-mile-Water near Clonmel when in crossing a ford of the River Suir:
“The little boy was left in a coach with no other companion but a foot-boy, when ‘a gentleman of
his father’s, very well horsed, accidentally espying him, in spite of some others and his own
unwillingness and resistance, carried him in arms over the rapid water, which proved so much
beyond expectation both swift and deep that horses with their riders were violently hurried down
the stream, which easily overturned the unloaded coach, the horses (after by long struggling they
had broke their harness) with much ado saved themselves by swimming.” 3
At the age of nine Robert was sent to Eaton with his brother Francis. The school was then under the
Provost Sir Henry Wotton a cousin of Francis Bacon. The childrens House Master was John Harrison.
After a few years spent at Eton Robert and Francis remained at their Father’s newly purchased Stalbridge
House and were tutored by the village Rector Mr. W. Douch. On the return of Lord Broghill and
Kinalmeaky to England from the Grand Tour their guide Isaac Marcombes [1605-1665] was assigned to
teach the younger boys.
The Grand Tour
While it has been suggested that the Grand Tour was “in essence a British invention because by the 18th
Century Britain was the wealthiest nation in the world and had a large upper class with both the time and
the money to travel” it is noteworthy that four of the Boyle family made such journeys almost a century
earlier. Robert and Francis began their tour at the end of 1639. During their period in Switzerland Robert
experienced a major storm and,
Philaretus means a lover of truth
Boyle, Robert. The works of the Honourable Robert Boyle. In six volumes. To which is prefixed The life of the Author.
London: Printed for J. and F. Rivington, L. Davis, W. Johnston, S. Crowder, T. Payne, G. Kearsley, J.
Robson, B. White, T. Becket and P.A. De Hondt, T. Davies, T. Cadell, Robinson and Roberts, Richardson
and Richardson, J. Knox, W. Woodfall, J. Johnson and T. Evans. 1772. Vol. I. pg. xiii.
Farrington, Thomas A life of the Honble. Robert Boyle, F.R.S. scientist and philanthropist. Cork: Printed by Guy
and Co. Ltd. 1917 24p. pg. 6
“the fourteen-year old boy thought the end of the world had come, and made the resolve and vow
‘that if his fears were that night disappointed, all his further additions to his life should be more
religiously and watchfully employed.” 4
They also met the famous Protestant preacher, Dr. John Diodati, during their time in Geneva. At Florence
they studied the “new paradoxes of the great star-gazer Galileo” who died during their stay in the city.
Travelling on to Marseilles they were there appraised of the news of the outbreak of rebellion in Ireland.
While Francis returned home, Robert went to Geneva and stayed with Isaac Marcombes for over two
years. When asked by his Father to return to Ireland or proceed to England Robert wrote that:
“after his long journey of 800 miles he was ‘as yet too weake to undertake so long a voyage in a
strange country, where I arrive I know nobody, and have little hope by reason of my youth to be
received among the troops.” 5
While this casts considerable doubt on the courage and willingness of Robert to support his father’s cause
it would appear that it did not overly annoy his father as shortly before his death the Great Earl wrote
sending “for him, and after his wont had a valuable ring purchased to be duly presented from him to the
little Lady Ann Howard, whom he was pleased to call ‘my Robyn’s younge Mrs.” 6 There may also be a
suggestion here that this was an intended bride for Robert. During the tour a letter sent by Marcombes
reveals that Robert’s stammer had not improved:
“ …I perceive some corroboration in his tongue (specially when he speaks French or Latin) yet
then for half a quarter of an hour he did stammer and stutter so much that Mr. Francis and I could
scarce understand him and scarce forbear laughing.” 7
England: Stalbridge, Oxford, and London.
Robert returned to England in 1644 and it took him some four months to make his way to Stalbridge
House which had been left to him in his father’s will. Stalbridge is a small town and parish in Dorset and
Stalbridge House was built in 1618 by Mervyn Tuchet in the “Jacobean style.” It was sold by Tuchet’s son
James to Richard Boyle and Robert lived there from 1644 to 1655. The house was by 1822 in a state of
great disrepair and was demolished in 1827.
Once settled in England he paid a short visit to the Continent, possibly to repay Marcombes for his
support. His time at Stalbridge was interspersed with several trips to Ireland but in 1655 he decided to
move to Oxford in order to pursue his scientific research. At that time Oxford was the centre of
extraordinary intellectual development and boasted as residents such luminaries as Sir William Petty and Sir
In 1668 Boyle left Oxford for London where he resided with his sister Katherine in Pall Mall for most of
the remainder of his life. Speaking of her, Thomas Birch said “she made the greatest figure in all the
revolutions of these kingdoms for above fifty years of any woman of that age.” 8 Among her friends was
John Milton whom she supported “by sending him her own son, Dick Jones, as a pupil, but also her
nephew, young Lord Barrymore.”
His position at the centre of English society at this time is manifested by Swift’s parody on Boyle’s
“Occasional Reflections upon several subjects” in his “Pious Meditations on a Broom-Staff in the Style of the Hon. Mr.
Boyle.” It has also been suggested that Swift got the idea of Gulliver’s Travels from Boyle’s “Occasional
Reflections” wherein he commented that “he had thoughts of making a short romantick story, where the
scene should be laid in some island of the Southern ocean, governed by some such rational laws and
customs as those of Utopia or the New Atlantis…” 9
While Boyle was not in London during the Plague he was present during the Great Fire.
Following his return to England in 1644 Boyle made several visits to Ireland before moving to Oxford
late in 1654. Richard Boyle had bequeathed him substantial properties in Limerick and the West of
Ireland but the condition of these following the Cromwellian Wars was deplorable. Even in 1647 he
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7 25th February 1639. F. Marcombes to Boyle. Lismore Papers
Farrington. pg. 22 – quoting Burnet
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tells us that from his “Irish estate out of which (he) never yet received the worth of a farthing.” 10 In
1652 he travelled to Ireland, where he remained for over a year meeting his relations and settling his
financial affairs. After a short visit to Stalbridge he returned to Ireland and remained there until the
middle of 1654.
He described Ireland at that time as “a barbarous country, where chemical spirits were so
misunderstood and chemical instruments so unprocurable, that it was hard to make any hermetic
thoughts in it.” 11 It is surely no accident that the central core of his criticism was his inability to
progress his work while at home.
In Ireland he met William Petty who had been a key member of the Oxford Circle and introduced
Boyle to aspects of anatomy and blood circulation. Petty had studied anatomy at Oxford and later
became, like Boyle, a “charter” member of the Royal Society. Interestingly, Petty had been private
secretary to Thomas Hobbes and shared many of his scientific views.
From “a grant of some of the forfeited impropriations in Ireland” Boyle set up a fund for Christian
advancement and out of this fund some £700 was contributed for the printing of an Irish version of the
Bible. He also contributed towards a Welsh Bible and a New Testament in Turkish.
Death and Burial
On the 23rd of December 1691 Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh, died and Robert Boyle died one week
later on the 30th of December. Both were buried in the Church of St-Martin-in-the-fields, where Nell
Gwynne William Hogarth Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Chippendale are also buried. When the
church was demolished in 1721 the bodies of Robert Boyle and Katherine were moved and reburied in an
unknown grave. Surprisingly, in the crypt of the new Church there is a monument to Frances Jones
daughter of Katherine which reads:
Here lyes the body of
Mtris FRANCES IONES daughter of ARTHVR
Lord vicecount of Ranelagh, by his wife ye
Lady KATHERINE BOYLE who was daughter
To Richard Boyle, Earl of Corke, and Lord high Tresuror of Ireland.
She dyed in the prime of her Age, haueing neuer been marryed, the XXVIII of
March in the yeare MDCLXXII.
Enough; and leue the rest to Fame;
‘Tis to Commend her but to name.
Courtship, which Lieueing she declin’d,
When dead to offer; were unkind.
Where neuer any could speake ill,
Who would officious Praises spill?
Nor can the truest Wit or Friend
Without Detracting her Commend.
To say she liu’d A Virgin Chast.
In this Ahe loose and all unlac’d;
Nor was, where vice is so allow’d
Of virtue or Asham’d or Proud;
That her Soule was on heu’n so bent,
No minute but it Came and Went,
That, ready her last debt to pay,
She summ’d her life vp euery day;
Modest, as Morne, as Midday, Bright;
Gentle, as Euening, Coole, as Night;
‘Tis true, but all so weakly said,
‘Twere more Significant: She’s Dead.”
The funeral service for Robert Boyle took place on the 7th of January 1692 and the sermon was preached
by Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, [1643-1715] who had known Robert for “nine and twenty years.”
He numbered Boyle among men
“who have lived in constant contempt of Wealth, Pleasure, or the Greatness of this world; whose
minds have been in as constant a pursuit of Knowledg, in all the several ways in which they could
trace it; who have added new Regions of their own discoveries, and that in a vast variety to all they
Do pg. 15
Farrington pg. 16
had found made before them; who have directed all their enquiries into Nature to the Honour of its
great Maker:” 12
Burnet indicated that scientific research exposed the works of God and “gives insensible a greatness to the
soul.” 13 In such a scenario, knowledge is not so much the product of labour as much as a “gift of God”
and a “means of making both himself and others wiser and happier, greater and better.” 14 Burnet sets out
many of the events and actions mentioned subsequently in biographical tracts on Boyle as for example his
many charitable bequests, translations of bibles etc. which “charity went beyond a thousand Pounds a
year.” 15 He also tells us that Boyle for “almost Forty years laboured under such a feebleness of Body,
and such lowness of Strength and Spirits…” 16 and also suffered from serious “feebleness in his sight.”
Inadvertently he provides a unique insight into the personality of the scientist:
“As for Joy, he had indeed nothing of Frolick and Levity in him, he had no Relish for the idle and
extravagant Madness of the Men of Pleasure; he did not waste his Time, nor dissipate his Spirits
into foolish Mirth…” 17
While Boyle’s published output embraced a multiplicity of subjects; from natural history to medicine, from
history to theology; his most important work centred on the fields of Chemistry and Physics. His central
working methodology was to proceed by controlled experiments with elaborate details of apparatus,
observations and other details published or disbursed to others with subsequent responses evaluated and
any modifications added.
The key mechanical device in his early work was his air-pump or “Pneumatical Engine” which was,
“an advance over Otto Von Guericke’s spheres in that it provided a glass receptacle into which
candles, mice and other objects could be placed for experimentation. Air was ratcheted out from a
cylinder and piston attached through a stopcock to the receptacle.”
This tool was engineered by Boyle’s assistant Robert Hooke [1635-1703] and was completed in 1659. His
early experiments were detailed in his first major publication “The spring and weight of the air” published in
1660. In the second edition of this work Boyle’s Law was set out on principles first propounded in 1661
by Henry Power. Boyle demonstrated in these experiments how air was necessary for the transmission of
sound, the existence of fire and the continuance of life itself.
In 1661 he published his seminal work “The Sceptical Chymist” wherein he explores the idea of the
“element.” This work marks his clear break with the alchemist’s tradition of secrecy “with his conviction
and insistence on publishing in great experimental detail.” Boyle in this was among the first scientists to
publish the details of his work, including unsuccessful experiments. He did, however, continue to maintain
his belief in the possibility of alchemical transmutation.
His work on Chemical analysis was equally groundbreaking as “he observed that all acids turned a
particular vegetable indicator from blue to red and all alkalis turned the indicator green. He found that
some substances did not change the colour of the indicator and concluded these were neutral. He thus
provided an operational method of classifying substances.”
Boyle was a central figure in the establishment of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific organization in the
world. The Society was created as a forum for scientific discussion and debate but perhaps it’s most lasting
legacy is the journal “Philosophical Transactions”. This journal now available online contains the most
extraordinary, enduring and inspiring encyclopaedic catalogue of articles by virtually every major researcher
on scientific subjects for the past three centuries.
Burnet, Gilbert, 1643-1715. A sermon preached at the Funeral of the Honourable Robert Boyle: at St. Martins
in the Fields, January 7. 1691/2 London: Printed for Ric. Chiswell, at the Rose and Crown, and John Taylor,
at the Ship, in St. Paul’s Church Yard, 1692. 40p. pg. 8
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The Society began life as the “Invisible College of natural philosophers” in 1645 inspired by the work of
Francis Bacon. Boyle joined this group in 1653 through the influence of Samuel Hartlib already a
prominent member since the inception of the Society. A formal re-invention was made on the 28th of
November 1660 at 12 Gresham College following a lecture by Christopher Wren when the “Colledge for
Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning” was established. Robert Hooke became its
The nameless group became known as the Royal Society in 1661 when the first such appellation appeared
in print. Following the granting of its second Royal Charter in 1663 it was called the “Royal Society of
London for improving Natural Knoweldge.” The first book published in 1662 by the Society was John Evelyn’s
Sylva, which was a major influence on the work of Charles Smith. Then in 1665 the “Philosophical
Transactions” first appeared edited by Henry Oldenburg [1618-1677]. 18
By the 1663 Charter Boyle was appointed one of the Council of the learned body and “as he had been one
of the principal persons to whom that Society owed its first rise and progress he continued during the rest
of his life one of its most useful members.” 19 The motto of the Society undoubtedly owes much to the
work of Boyle, “nullius in verba,” or nothing in words, and suggests that science should be based on solid
Boyle held a reputation of the highest eminence during his lifetime. His centrality in 17th Century scientific
research is indubitable but more crucially the application of his syllogistic progressive methodology to
contemporary social and political theory generated an enormous debate stoked by Thomas Hobbes [1588-
1679] the founding father of modern Western Political Philosophy.
In an earlier skirmish the Jesuit Franciscus Linus [1595-1675] had partially precipitated a response from
Boyle in which he propounded Boyle’s Law for first time. It is, however, Hobbes’s criticism of the use of
the Air-pump; superficially a critique of a vehicle for scientific research, but essentially a seminal assault on
a methodology for the development of a Philosophy and Sociology of Knowledge and more centrally for
Hobbes Political Science; that is paradoxically axiomatic in positioning Boyle at the apex of 17th Century
In an interesting coincidence Hobbes spent several years as tutor to William Cavendish later Earl of
Devonshire and later taught the Earl’s son with whom he made the Grand Tour and thus played an
important role in a family that would soon become guardians of the Boyle inheritance and heritage.
Hobbes was extremely interested in the fields of geometry, history, physics, theology and ethics. His
central works are “De Cive” published in 1642 and “Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common
Wealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil” published in 1651.
During the early 17th Century Europe and England experienced a period of cataclysmic upheaval in social
and political life which culminated with the Thirty Years War [1618-48] and the English Civil War. As in
many such periods throughout history this upheaval precipitated an extraordinarily rich intellectual
progress and spawned radically different alternative visions of humanity.
Boyle’s approach to knowledge had several central foundations: firstly the acquisition of knowledge is
important in its own right; secondly knowledge [science] is acquired through the evolution of a theory, the
testing of that theory through experimentation, the recording publication & sharing of observations and
finally the analysis and modification of the conclusions where appropriate. This process is set out as a
theorem in the work of Shapin and Shaffer 20 as: Progress from Material technology [experiment] through a
Literary technology [publication] and a Social technology [consensus] to a conclusion of “probability”
rather than a “universal theory.”
Hobbes, on the other hand, relied on a “mechanistic view of science and knowledge, one that models itself
very much on the clarity and deductive power exhibited in geometry” and led to an “absolute conclusion.”
Hobbes chose the air-pump” as the point of attack to outline his objections to Boyle’s methodology and
indeed experimental science as a whole. He invoked Plenism 21 and suggested that “the boundaries Boyle
proposed to erect and maintain were guarantees of continued disorder not remedies to philosophical
Henry Oldenburg served as tutor to Richard Jones son of Katherine Ranelagh. He was also a key figure
in the Court of King William.
Farrington pg. 18
Shapin, Steven & Schaffer, Simon. Leviathan and the Air-pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental life. 1985
A theory originally propounded by Aristotle that a vacuum could not exist.
Shapin, Steven & Schaffer, Simon. Leviathan and the Air-pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental life. 1985
It was as if the very stability of society was at stake and the “debate between the these two contemporaries
had political fallout beyond the academic community, and that accepting Hobbes or Boyle’s method of
knowledge production was to accept a social philosophy as well.” 23
The denial by Hobbes of a vacuum stems in part from his need for political stability. As he ranged
through ontology and epistemology Hobbes announced:
“Show men what knowledge is and you will show them the grounds of assent and social order.” 24
In the universe of Hobbes there was no room for “belief” and behavioural control rather than internal
moral control was required and experimental enquiry was otiose.
Like most debates the conclusion at this period was uncertain but in time the approach of Boyle was soon
In his will Boyle established a series of lectures “intended to defend the Christian religion against those he
considered ‘notorious infidels, namely atheists, deists, pagans, Jews and Muslims.” The first lecture was
given in 1692 by Richard Bentley, “A Confutation of Atheism.” They continued annually with some gaps of
up to 7 or 8 years until 1905. The lectures resumed in 2004. The series was supported by the rent of
Boyle’s house at Crooked Lane and when the revenue from this rental was seen to be inadequate Bishop
Tennison “procured a yearly stipend of £50 forever to be paid quarterly, charged on a farm in the parish of
Brill Buckinghamshire” to ensure their continuance.
Empirical science was at the heart of Boyle’s thought and methodology. His religious tolerance was
exemplary in an era of horrific religious conflicts and while it was notably applied to other Protestant
denominations it may possibly have extended to Catholicism. He openly stated that everyone should
“enjoy the liberty of worshipping God according to their own conscience.” 25 He did not engage in the
“controversial polemics” of the day nor the rhetoric the accompanied it.
The scion of a titled family he steadfastly refused honours and titles. Described very unfairly as a
“sententious little prig,” 26 he may have been a humourless and austere “puritan” as suggested by Burnet at
the funeral service, but a zealot he most certainly was not. His preoccupation with the development of his
intellect and knowledge was not self-serving and the number of visitors to his home and the enormous
number of his correspondents demonstrate how widespread and extensive his network of friends was.
Social niceties were certainly not his forte.
It was he who most fully executed the principles which Francis Bacon had so eloquently set out in
“Novum Organum” and it was he who first used the term “chemical analysis” as it is understood today.
While his reputation was extraordinarily high in his own time it has been negatively impacted subsequently
by research which has displayed the contributions of others to the experiments and discoveries credited to
Boyle. This analysis, I believe, fundamentally misunderstands the contribution of this remarkable man
whose talent and methodology was fundamentally based on co-operative research, shared communication
in either letters or publications and mutual critical assessment of the discoveries of all.
1st October 2008
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Farrington pg. 21
Delany, Paul British autobiography in the seventeenth Century U.K.: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1969 198p. pg.