Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle (January 25, 1627 - December 30, 1691) 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.

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Robert Boyle Quotes

I am not ambitious to appear a man of letters: I could be content the world should think I had scarce looked upon any other book than that of nature.

As rivers, when they overflow, drown those grounds, and ruin those husbandmen, which, whilst they flowed calmly betwixt their banks, they fertilized and enriched; so our passions, when they grow exorbitant and unruly, destroy those virtues, to which they may be very serviceable whilst they keep within their bounds.

And I might add the confidence with which distracted persons do oftentimes, when they are awake, think, they see black fiends in places, where there is no black object in sight without them.

As the moon, though darkened with spots, gives us a much greater light than the stars that sewn all-luminous, so do the Scriptures afford more light than the brightest human authors. In them the ignorant may learn all requisite knowledge, and the most knowing may learn to discern their ignorance.

Darkness, that here surrounds our purblind understanding, will vanish at the dawning of eternal day.

Exalt your passion by directing and settling it upon an object the due con-templation of whose loveliness may cure perfectly all hurts received from mortal beauty.

Female beauties are as fickle in their faces as in their minds; though casualties should spare them, age brings in a necessity of decay.

God may rationally be supposed to have framed so great and admirable an automaton as the world for special ends and purposes.

He that condescended so far, and stooped so low, to invite and bring us to heaven, will not refuse us a gracious reception there.

I think myself obliged, whatever my private apprehensions may be of the success, to do my duty, and leave events to their Disposer.

In an arch each single stone which, if severed from the rest, would be perhaps defenceless is sufficiently secured by the solidity and entireness of the whole fabric, of which it is a part.

In the Bible the ignorant may learn all requisite knowledge, and the most knowing may learn to discern their ignorance.

I use the Scriptures, not as an arsenal to be resorted to only for arms and weapons, but as a matchless temple, where I delight to be, to contemplate the beauty, the symmetry, and the magnificence of the structure, and to increase my awe, and excite my devotion to the Deity there preached and adored. - Some Consideration Touching the Style of the Holy Scriptures

He that said it was not good for man to be alone, placed the celibate amongst the inferior states of perfection.

Robert Boyle Chronological Biography

1627: Robert Boyle was born on the 25th January 1627, in Lismore Castle, Waterford, County Cork, Ireland. Seventh Son of Robert Boyle the protestant First Earl of Cork. He was one of fourteen children. His father had gone to Ireland in 1588 and later bought Sir Walter Raleigh's estates in Cork in 1600. He was also known as the richest man in England. His mother Catherine Fenton, was Boyle Senior's second wife.

1629: Robert Boyle Senior, the Earl of Cork appointed Lord High Justice

1631: Earl of Cork appointed Lord High Treasurer. Death of his mother and Boyle goes to live in Dublin with the rest of his family and leaving his country nurse.

1635: Sent to England to study at Eton.

1638: The earl of Cork took both his sons away from the School as he did not agree with the new headmaster's style of teaching which was not having a beneficial effect on his boys.He was now tutored privately by one of his father's chaplains.

1639: At the age of 12 he was sent on a European tour by his father with one of his brother's visiting Paris and Geneva.

1641: By now he was in Italy having learnt Italian and he and his tutor visited Venice.

1642: They visited Florence. Galileo died whilst he was in the city but there is no evidence that the two met, however Boyle was much influenced by the event and this made him study Galileo's works in detail. (May) Boyle moved on to Marseille waiting for money from his father so that he could return home. The money sent to him never reached him due to an uprising in Munster so he returned to Geneva where he lived off his tutors earnings.

1643: King Charles the First negotiated with the Irish Rebels so that the Earl of Cork could bring his troops back to England to help with the Civil War. The Earl of Cork never forgave the King for treating the Irish as equals and died later that year.

1644: Boyle sold some jewellery to finance his return to England. Once home he lived with his sister Katherine.

1646: Due to the upheavals of the Civil War it was only now that he could move into the Manor house of Stalbridge in Dorset, which had been bequeathed to him by his father. He tried not to take sides in the Civil war as his father had been a staunch Royalist and his Sister held out for Parliament and it is clear that he had no feeling for either.

1649: King Charles the First was tried and executed.

1650: Oliver Cromwell saw off the threat from King Charles the Second.

1651: Cromwell defeats the Irish.

1652: Boyle returns to Ireland to look after his estates and became a very rich man after Cromwell apportioned Irish lands to the English lords. This money meant that he could devote himself to science without having to worry about money.

1653: He visited London and met John WIlkins who was to later to become one of the founders of the Royal Society of London. Wilkins had just been appointed as Warden of Wadham College in Oxford and led what was referred to as the "Invisible College" which was an anti-scholastic organisation of Oxford intellectuals and the forerunner to the Royal Society. Wadham encouraged Boyle to live in Oxford but he decided not to live in college with Wadham but hired his own rooms so that he could conduct his experiments. Here he met many important scientists such as John Wallis, Savilian Professor of Geometry and Christopher Wren although he never held a university post himself.

1660: Works with experiments on an air pump designed by his assistant Robert Hooke. He found many facts including that sound does not travel in a vacuum. He also proved that flames needed air to burn and life also needed air.
He wrote New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall

1661: He argued against Aristotle's four elements of earth, air, fire and water and said that matter was made up of small corpuscles which were built up by different configurations of primary particles. Although he owed a debt to Renee Descartes, descartes did not believe in a vacuum but an all pervading ether.
He wrote Physiologocial Essays

1662: Boyle's Law first appears which states that the pressure and volume of gas are inversely proportional. Many scientists including Thomas Hobbes said that a vacuum could not exist but Boyle proved that it was theoretically possible. Hobbes declared that Boyle's results must be because of some otherwise unknown event. He also worked on the calcination of metals, the properties of acids and alkalis, specific gravity, crystallography and refraction and was the first to prepare phosphorus. He was also appointed as a director of the East India Company and tirelessly tried to bring Christianity to the lands where it traded.
He wrote Sceptical Chymist

1664: He began to work on optics and colours although his work in this field was not as successful. He acknowledged the work of his pupil Hooke as superior.
He wrote Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours

1666: He wrote Origin of Forms and Qualities

1668: He left Oxford to live with his sister Lady Ranelagh in London.

1670: He had a stroke but his health returned gradually.

1672: He believed that the work of Isaac Newton on colour theory was move superior to his own and should replace it.

1680: Although one of the Founding father's of the Royal Society of London he declined the offer to become its President as he believed he could not swear the necessary religious oaths.

1691: Robert Boyle dies at age 64 on the 30th December 1691, London, England and is buried in St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, St. Martin’s Place, London, England.

Original chronology compiled by Britain Unlimited

Robert Boyle Biography

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)
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).

Original biography compiled by University of Dayton

(For more information see Wikipedia)


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