Robert Boyle

Born Jan. 25, 1627, Lismore, County Waterford, Ire. d. Dec. 30, 1691, London, Eng. Anglo-Irish chemist and natural philosopher noted for his pioneering experiments on the properties of gases and his espousal of a corpuscular view of matter that was a forerunner of the modern theory of chemical elements.

He was a founding member of the Royal Society of London.

Boyle was the 14th child of a family of wealth and influence. In 1635 he was sent to Eton College, after which he spent the years from 1639 to 1644 with a tutor on the European continent, for the most part in Switzerland.

From 1645 to 1655 Boyle lived partly in Dorset, where he began his experimental work and wrote moral essays, some of which appeared in 1655 in Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects. One of his essays is reputed to have inspired the writing of Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift.

He spent some time in Ireland in connection with his estates; because laboratory apparatus was unobtainable there, he engaged in anatomical dissection.

From 1656 to 1668 he resided at the University of Oxford, where he had the good fortune to secure the assistance of Robert Hooke, the able inventor and subsequent curator of experiments to the Royal Society, who helped him construct an air pump.

Recognizing at once its scientific possibilities, Boyle conducted pioneering experiments in which he demonstrated the physical characteristics of air and the necessary role of air in combustion, respiration, and the transmission of sound. Boyle described this work in 1660 in New Experiments Physio-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects.

To the second edition of this work, in 1662, he appended his report of 1661 to the Royal Society on the relationship, now known as Boyle's law, that at a constant temperature the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to the pressure.

In The Sceptical Chymist, Boyle in 1661 attacked the Aristotelian theory of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and also the three principles (salt, sulfur, and mercury) proposed by Paracelsus. Instead, he developed the concept of primary particles which by coalition produce corpuscles.

According to this concept, different substances result from the number, position, and motion of the primary matter. All natural phenomena were therefore explained not by Aristotelian elements and qualities but by the motion and organization of primary particles.

Boyle did not postulate different kinds of primary elements--the 19th-century view--but his ideas are valid within certain limits. In his experimental work he also studied the calcination of metals and proposed a means of distinguishing between acid and alkaline substances, which was the origin of the use of chemical indicators.

He was also interested in trades and manufacturing processes.

Beginning in 1668, he resided with his sister Katherine, Lady Ranelagh, in London.

In this final period of his life he continued his experimental work with the help of laboratory assistants. Boyle also continued to take interest in the Royal Society and in his charitable activities.

By his will he endowed a series of Boyle lectures, or sermons, which still continue, "for proving the Christian Religion against notorious Infidels."

Boyle acquired great renown in his lifetime, and foreigners of distinction invariably tried to visit him. He was elected president of the Royal Society in 1680 but declined the honour.

As a devout Protestant, Boyle took a special interest in promoting the Christian religion abroad, giving money to translate and publish the New Testament into Irish and Turkish.

In 1690 he developed his theological views in The Christian Virtuoso, which he wrote to show that the study of nature was a central religious duty.

In his view of divine providence, nature was a clocklike mechanism that had been made and set in motion by the Creator at the beginning and now functioned according to secondary laws, which could be studied by science.

But the human soul was incorporeal and nobler than the moving corpuscles of which the body was composed.