Robert Boyle

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Shannon portrait: Robert Boyle

Robert William Boyle FRS (25 January 162731 December 1691) was an Anglo-Irish natural philosopher, chemist, physicist and inventor. Boyle is largely regarded today as the first modern chemist, and therefore one of the founders of modern chemistry, and one of the pioneers of modern experimental scientific method. He is best known for Boyle's law, which describes the inversely proportional relationship between the absolute pressure and volume of a gas, if the temperature is kept constant within a closed system. Among his works, The Sceptical Chymist is seen as a cornerstone book in the field of chemistry.


  • Doubtless, it shews the wisdom of God, to have so fram'd things at first, that there can seldom or never need any extraordinary interposition of his power; or the employing from, time to time, an intelligent overseer, to regulate, assist, and control the motions of matter.
    • "A Free Inquiry into the Vulgar Notion of Nature," Sect.1 in The Philosophical Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle (1725) Vol.2
  • Among Latin writers, the acceptations of the word nature are so many, that I remember, one author reckons up no less than fourteen or fifteen. Hence we see how easy 'tis for the generality of men, without excepting those who write of natural things, to impose upon others and themselves, in the use of a word so apt to be mis-employ'd. ..the very great ambiguity of this term, and the promiscuous use made of it, without sufficiently attending to its different significations, render many of the expressions wherein 'tis employ'd either unintelligible, improper, or false.
    • "A Free Inquiry into the Vulgar Notion of Nature" Sect.1 ibid.
  • I cannot conceive, how a body, destitute of understanding and sense, truly so called, can moderate and determine its own motions; especially so as to make them conformable to laws that it has no knowledge of.
    • "A Free Inquiry into the Vulgar Notion of Nature" Sect.1 ibid.
  • And of universal nature, the notion I would offer, should be something like this. Nature is the aggregate of the bodies, that make up the world, in its present state, considered as a principle, by virtue whereof, they act and suffer, according to the laws of motion, prescribed by the author of things.
    • "A Free Inquiry into the Vulgar Notion of Nature" Sect.2 ibid.
  • The phaenomena afforded by trades, are a part of the history of nature, and therefore may both challenge the naturalist's curiosity and add to his knowledge, Nor will it suffice to justify learned men in the neglect and contempt of this part of natural history, that the men, from whom it must be learned, are illiterate mechanicks... is indeed childish, and too unworthy of a philosopher, to be worthy of an honest answer.

The Sceptical Chymist (1661)[edit]

  • I observe, that of late Chymistry begins, as indeed it deserves, to be cultivated by Learned Men who before despis’d it; and to be pretended to by many who never cultivated it, that they may be thought not to ignore it: Whence it is come to passe, that divers Chymical Notions about Matters Philosophical are taken for granted and employ’d, and so adopted by very eminent Writers both Naturalists and Physitians. Now this I fear may prove somewhat prejudicial to the Advancement of solid Philosophy: For though I am a great Lover of Chymical Experiments, and though I have no mean esteem of divers Chymical Remedies, yet I distinguish these from their Notions about the causes of things, and their manner of Generation.
    • Preface Introductory to the Following Treatise
  • A Person any Thing vers’d in the Writings of Chymists cannot but Discern by their obscure, Ambiguous, and almost Ænigmatical Way of expressing what they pretend to Teach, that they have no Mind, to be understood at all, but by the Sons of Art (as they call them) nor to be Understood even by these without Difficulty And Hazardous Tryalls.
    • Preface Introductory to the Following Treatise
  • And therefore I think you have done very wisely to make it your business to consider the Phœnomena relating to the present question, which have been afforded by experiments, especially since it might seem injurious to our senses, by whose mediation we acquire so much of the knowledge we have of things corporal, to have recourse to far-fetched and abstracted Ratiocination, to know what are the sensible ingredients of those sensible things that we daily see and handle, and are supposed to have the liberty to untwist (if I may so speak) into the primitive bodies they consist of.
    • Physiological Considerations Part of the First Dialogue (15)
  • Being Gentlemen and very far from the litigious humour of loving to wrangle about words or terms or notions as empty; they had before his coming in, readily agreed promiscuously to use when they pleased Elements and Principles as terms equivalent: and to understand both by the one and the other, those primitive and simple bodies of which the mixt ones are said to be composed, and into which they are ultimately resolved.
    • Physiological Considerations Part of the First Dialogue (16)
  • It seems not absurd to conceive, that at first production of mixt bodies, the universal matter, whereof they among other parts of the universe consisted, was actually divided, into little particles, of several sizes and shapes, variously moved.
    • Part I, Proposition I
  • Epicurus... supposes not only all mixt bodies, but all others to be produced by the various and casual occursions of atoms, moving themselves to and fro by an internal principle in the immense or rather infinite vacuum.
    • Part I, Carneades speaking
  • Those distinct substances, which concretes generally either afford, or are made up of, may, without very much inconvenience, be called the elements or principles of them.
    • Part I, Proposition IV
  • There are some mixt bodies, from which it has not been yet made appear, that any degree of fire can separate either salt, or sulphur, or mercury, much less all the three. The most obvious instance of this truth is gold, which is a body so fixed, and wherein the elementary ingredients (if it have any) are so firmly united to each other, that we find not in the operations, wherein gold is exposed to the fire, how violent soever, that it does discernably so much as lose of its fixedness or weight, so far is it from being dissipated into those principles, whereof one at least is acknowledged to be fugitive enough.
    • Part I
  • I need not tell you, what complaints the more candid and judicious of the Chymists themselves are wont to make of those boasters, that confidently pretend, that they have extracted the salt or sulphur of quicksilver, when they have disguised it by additaments, wherewith it resembles the concretes, whose names are given it; whereas by a skilful and rigid examen, it may be easily enough stripped of its disguises, and made to appear again in the pristine form of running mercury. The pretended salts and sulphurs being so far from being elementary parts extracted out of the body of mercury, that they are rather... de-compound bodies, made up of the whole metal and the menstruum, or other additaments employed to disguise it.
    • Part I
  • As for silver, I never could see any degree of fire make it part with any of its three principles. ...But admitting, that some parts of the silver were driven away by the violence of the fire, what proof is there, that it was either the salt, the sulphur, or the mercury of the metal, and not rather a part of it homogeneous to what remained? for besides that the silver, that was left, seemed not sensibly altered, which probably would have appeared, had so much of any one of its principles been separated from it.
    • Part I

Quotes about Boyle[edit]

  • After the death of Bacon, one of the most distinguished Englishmen was certainly Boyle, who, if compared with his contemporaries, may be said to rank immediately below Newton, though of course very inferior to him as an original thinker.
  • His works on natural and experimental philosophy, particularly on hydrostatics and pneumatics, and his own improvements of the air pump, have placed his name in a rank second only to that of Newton: as a chemist, he takes the lead of all his contemporaries; and in his theological writings, he has so blended philosophy with religion as to exhibit to the world the true value of scientific pursuits.
  • In the opinion of one of the most eminent modem naturalists, it was Boyle who opened up those chemical inquiries, which went on accumulating until, a century later, they supplied the means by which Lavoisier and his contemporaries fixed the real basis of chemistry, and enabled it for the first time to take its proper stand among those sciences that deal with the external world.
    • James Henry Monk, The Life of Richard Bentley, D.D.: Master of Trinity College (1833) Vol.1
  • Boyle was among the first who recognized that the withdrawal of sympathy licenses conduct that would not be permissible within an animistic vision of nature. ...The vision that he and his scientific colleagues were creating was fast becoming a mathematical abstraction lacking color, odor, texture, and personality. ...The task of the natural philosopher, we are told, is to "probe," "penetrate," and "pierce" nature in all her "mysterious," secret," and "intimate recesses."
    • Theodore Roszak, The Gendered Atom: Reflections on the Sexual Psychology of Science (1999)
  • Robert Boyle was a younger son of Richard Boyle, first earl of Cork, the next to last of his father's sixteen children, and the youngest surviving son. Boyle's father was... a self-made man... it is probable that his parents were of yeomen stock. Arriving in Dublin from England at age twenty-one... he launched a career whose ambition and acquisitiveness were matched only by its spectacular success. ...All this was not achieved without manking many enemies. In their view, and that of most Irish historians, Boyle was a robber baron of heroic stature, using his position to defraud Irish landowners... of their existing titles and and to pass title to himself at absurdly deflated prices. He then expelled the Irish tenants and replaced them with more pliable and profitable English settlers. ...Boyle was twice imprisoned, and he was obliged to use his considerable connections to obtain a royal pardon for... charges of fraud.
  • Boyle's early endorsement of philosophical openness was soon compromised by, as he put it, the sordid requirements of trading with those who "need to make pecuniary advantage" of secret knowledge. By 1674 Boyle made no scruples about his distaste for necessary philosophical dealings with the artisan and trading classes.
    • Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (1994)
  • I have... hinted at the probability that Boyle himself was involved only in a very limited way in 'his' experimental manipulations. The device which became known as the machina Boyleana [air pump] was almost certainly constructed for him by remunerated assistants Ralph Greatorex and Robert Hooke, and even the extent of Boyle's rule in its evolving design remains unclear. The glass J-shaped tube that yielded his law of pressures and volumes was again almost certainly made for him and had to be manipulated by him in collaboration with assistants, if not solely by them. The furnaces in his laboratory, and the alembics in which long-term distillations were performed, were probably tended by assistants.
    • Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (1994)
  • In 1680, Robert Boyle published the Second Part of his Continuation of New Experiments Physico-mechanical, Touching the Spring and Weight of the Air. ...According to Boyle's preface, the experimental work... was mainly done by a remunerated technician... Denis Papin. The air-pump with which the experiments were performed was... of Papin's own design... At least some, and perhaps the greatest part, of the design of the experimental project was also owing to the technician. ...It seems also that the technician was partly, if not mainly, responsible for the composition of the experimental narratives.
    • Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (1994)
  • The Hon. Robert Boyle... in the third volume of the folio edition of his work, is a paper having the following title, "That the Goods of Mankind may be much Increased by the Naturalist's Insight into Trades." This paper contains... the first attempt at a philosophical recognition of the value and importance of the industrial arts of mankind. In it we recognise the early effort of a man of science seeking to call the attention of the learned and great of his time to what he aptly denominates the Natural History of Trades. ...He contends that the benefit accruing from such an inquiry would be mutual, both to the learned in natural knowledge, and to the skilled in industrial art.
  • The period in which Boyle lived was one in which private investigation was calculated to be more useful than public exhibition, as knowledge of every kind was at that time almost in its infancy.
    • Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, The Industry of Nations: As Exemplified in the Great Exhibition of 1851 (1852) Part 1, Ch.2 History of Exhibitions
  • Who has won more fame in the field of chemistry than this author? Who can boast of more happy successes or more excellent results? He worked night and day, never letting go of his object, nature; through this science he improved our life and put others share in what he had discovered with superhuman assiduity, at his own peril, at his own expense -- the first, the only one to achieve such happy results. But how devout was this guileless soul at all times! How pure his heart in serving God! He gave us generous love to one and all, and pious veneration to the Divine tterances, distinguishing in the most prudent manner between the principles of religion and the whole field of natural and chemical science. I refer to the writings of this man, which he published for the great good of human race; treatises on the style that prevails in the Holy Scriptures, on the love of God, on the design of God, the Creator, on the duty of gratitude and reverence, to be rendered by man to the Almighty God, his Redeemer.
    • Herman Boerhaave, as quoted in Boerhaaveìs Orations, Naturwissenschaften Medizin, edited by Elze Kegel-Brinkgreve & ‎Antonie Maria Luyendijk-Elshout, Brill Archive; p. 198.

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