[Hon.] Robert Boyle (1627-91)

b. Lismore Castle, 25 Jan., a son of Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork; ed. Eton, from aetat. 8; travelled on the continent with tutor, 1638; sent on European tour for six years, aetat 11, first to France, then Italy 1641; returned to Dorset, England, 1644; met with others of the ‘Invisible College’ dedicated the New Philosophy, in Gresham college, London, from 1644; set up laboratory in 1649; visited Ireland during 1652-53, and described it as ‘a barbarous country inimical to scientific thought’; moved to Oxford, 1654 [var. 1655]; employed Robert Hooke (1635-1703) and built air-pump [machina Boyleana] with him, 1659, an improvement on Otto von Guericke’s apparatus, leading to experiments with air; criticised by Franciscus Linus SJ; enunciated law that vol. of gases is inverse to pressure in reply to same at a constant temperature (‘Boyle’s Law’);
issued New Experiments Physio-Mechanical, Touching the Spring of the Air and Its Effects (1660), containing Boyle’s Law on the inverse relationship between the volume of a gas and its pressure; fnd. with others of the Invisible College a Royal Soc. of London for improving natural knowledge, with charter of Charles II, 1663; president, 1680, but declined through scruple about oaths; moved to London, 1668; d. 30 Dec. also fnd.-mbr. Dublin Philosophical Society [later RDS]; scientific and philosophical writings include The Sceptical Chymist (1661), attacking Aristotle and Paracelsus; clearly distinguished between compounds and mixtures; religious writings incl. Occasional Reflections (1665), ridiculed by Swift; moved to deep religious faith by thunder-storm; studied scripture in ancient languages; supported reprinting of William Daniel’s 1602 translation of the New Testament in 1681;
received transcripts of Bedell’s Bible prepared by Bishop Narcissus Marsh and Andrew Sall, and contributed 500 for the casting of an new Irish type font, designed by Moxon, 1685; endowed Boyle lectures ‘for proving the Christian Religion against notorious Infidels’; paid for reissue of OT and NT translations together, for use in Scotland as An Bíobla Naomtha (commonly called ‘Bedell’s Bible’); his Free Discourse Against Swearing was issued posthumously; left copious papers with particular instructions for their preservation except ‘a bundle of other Letters to be rifled, and the rest burnt’; a portrait by Friedrich Kerseboom is held with his natural history collections as a bequest in the Royal Society (London). RR ODNB DIB OCEL OCIL
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Contemporary writings
  • New Experiments Physico-Mechanical Touching on the spring of air and its effects (1660), and a continuation, 1669;
  • The Sceptical Chemist (1661);
  • Considerations touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy (1663), with a 2nd pt. in 1671;
  • Experiments and Considerations upon colours, with Observations on a Diamond that Shines in the Dark (1663);
  • Hydrostatical Paradoxes (1666); Origin of Forms and Qualities According to the Corpuscular Philosophy (1666);
  • Experiments and Notes about the Mechanical Origin or Production of Particular Qualities (1676), incl. notes on magnetism;
  • Memoirs for the National History of the Human Blood (1684);
  • Short Memoirs for the Natural Experimental History of Mineral Waters (1685);
  • Medicina Hydrostatica (1690); Experimenta et Observationes Physicae (1691).

Other works incl. Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects (1665) - ridiculed by Swift in A Pious Meditation upon a Broomstick, and by Butler in An Occasional Reflection on Dr Carlton’s Feeling a Dog’s Pulse at Gresham College; further, Excellence of Theology compared with Natural Philosophy (1664); Discourse of Things above Reason (1681); High Veneration Man owes to God (1685); A Free Enquiry into the vulgarly received Notion of Nature (1686); Christian Virtuoso (1690). Posthumous works incl. The General History of the Air (1692), ‘designed and begun’; Medicinal Experiments (1692-98), a collection of choice remedies; A Free Discourse against Customary Swearing (1695); incomplete and unauthorised edn. of his works (Geneva 1677).

Collected Works
  • The Philosophical Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle: Abridged, methodized, and disposed under the general heads of physics, statics, pneumatics, natural history, chymistry, and medicine / The Whole illustrated with notes, containing the improvements made in the several parts of natural and experimental knowledge since his time by Peter Shaw, M.D. [1st Edn.], 3 vols. (London: printed for W. and J. Innys ... and J. Osborn, and T. Longman ... M. DCC. XXV. [1725]), ill ; 24 cm.
  • Thomas Birch, ed., The Works of Robert Boyle, with a life, 5 folio vols. (1744), Do. [2nd edn. in 6 quarto vols.] (1772) [but see infra].
  • F. Masson, Robert Boyle: A Biography (1914) [listed in Encyclopedia Britannica, 1949].
  • Michael Hunter, Antonio Clericuzio & Lawrence M. Principe,. eds., Correspondence of Robert Boyle, 1636-1691, 6 vols.(London: Pickering & Chatto 2001) [3,000+pp.].

Bibliographical details
The Life of the Honourable Robert Boyle / By Thomas Birch, M.A. and F.R.S. [Birch's life of Boyle; 1st Edn.] (London: Printed for A. Millar, over-against Catherine-Street in the Strand. MDCDXLIV [1744]), [6], 458, [16] p. ; 8°.

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Richard Ryan, ‘Hon. Robert Boyle’, in Biographia Hibernica, Irish Worthies (1821), Vol. I, p.153; K. Theodore Hoppen, ‘The Dublin Philosophical Society and the new learning in Ireland’, in Irish Historical Studies, 14 (1964-5), pp.99-118; M. Kathleen Lynch, Robert Boyle, Ist Earl of Orrery (Knoxville 1965); Barbara Beigun Kaplan, ‘Divulging of Useful Truths in Physick, The Medical Agenda of Robert Boyle (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP 1994); Michael Hunter, ed., Robert Boyle Reconsidered (CUP 1994); Robert Boyle by Himself and His Friends with a Fragment of William Wotton’s Lost ‘Life of Boyle’ (London: Pickering & Chatto 1994), 188pp. See also K. T. Hoppen, The Common Scientist in the Seventeenth Century: A Study of the Dublin Philosophical Society 1683-1708 (London:Routledge & Kegan Paul 1970).

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George Saintsbury, Short Hist. of English Literature [q.d.], 522f.: ‘The platitudinousness of the Hon. Robert Boyle (1626-1691), celebrated, or rather, immortalised, by Swift, is an unintentional reduction to the absurd of qualities which Sprat insisted on as necessary to the scientific man.’

William Reville, The Irish Times (8 March 2001) [science column], gives account: Robert Boyle, sent on European tour for six years, aged 11; returned to Dorset in 1644; set up laboratory in 1649; moved to Oxford, 1655; employed Robert Hooke (1635-1703); built air-pump; New Experiments Physio-Mechanical, Touching the Spring of the Air and Its Effects (1660), containing Boyle’s law on the inverse relationship between the volume of a gas and its pressure; believed with others that cosmical qualities transcended pure mechanical laws of the universe; v. religious; hostile to view of nature which sidelined God’s creation; attacked Aristotle and Paracelsus in The Sceptical Chymist (1661); proposed that elements were composed of ‘corpuscles’ organised as chemical substances; clearly distinguished mixtures and compounds; first scientist to collect a sample of a gas; endowed Boyle lectures ‘for proving the Christian Religion against notorious Infidels’; Free Discourse Against Swearing (posthum.).

Geoffrey Grigson, ‘Meanings of Landscape’, in Places of the Mind (London: Routledge 1944), p.99: ‘If I start saying “this particular rock is one of the oldest of the world's rocks”, there is nothing to stop me wandering off into the earlier ages of the world, into the origins of continents, into Wegener's theory of continental drift, into a mental walking tour through the reconstructed landscape of Godwanaland; whereas the here-and-now of the rock, and its plants and its lichens and its shape and its colour, its dryness or wateriness, is what affects me, makes me - or rather helps to make me-happy or elated, or comfortable, or disturbed. / This is not making a fashionable long nose at science. Only, landscape is you and me, and here and now, decidedly. No matter what science explains we stick to our senses. The great Robert Boyle, with the admirable pride of a seventeenth-century virtuoso and Fellow of the Royal Society, could not understand why sensible men had ever felt a divinity about the moon [quotes]: / “The moon which was anciently a principal deity, is so rude and mountainous a body, that ’tis a wonder speculative men, who consider’d how many, how various, and how noble functions belong to a sensitive soul, could think a mass of matter, so very remote from being fitly organiz’d, should be animated and govern’d by a true, living and sensitive soul.”’ But we still admire the mass of matter, and give it a personality [99] if not a divinity. Long after Boyle was dead and buried, Coleride (who was not an unscientific poet) founded the philosophy of his life on the personified Evening Star, which he gazed at from the lead roofs of Christ’s Hospital.’ (pp.99-100.)

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Margaret Drabble
, ed., Oxford Companion of English Literature (OUP: 1985), cites early romances, Seraphic Love and Martyrdom of Theodora, the latter turned into a libretto for Handel. Swift and Butler wrote parodies of his Occasional Reflections (1665), a work which supplied Swift with a central line in Gulliver’s Travels. Boyle paid for a translation of the New Testament into Irish and other languages. NOTE err, Occasional Reflections provided themes for Gulliver’s Travels

Henry Boylan, Dictionary of Irish Biography (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1988): recte, ridicule in Notes on a Broomstick.

Marsh’s Library, Dublin holds copies of 20 original letters from Hon. Robert Boyle to Narcissus Marsh, while Proost of Trinity Colelge, and bishop of Ferns and Lieghlin; respecting the publication of the Old Testament in Irish [MS 1682-4; 49 fols.]; presented by Charles E. Orpen, 1836. (See Muriel McCarthy and Caroline Sherwood-Smith, eds., Hibernia Resurgens: Catalogue of Marsh’s Library, 1994, p.30.]

Perseus at Tufts contains “Robert Boyle’s Work Diaries I-XXXVIII ” as digitised text (254,000-word plus, with biog. and bibl.) at www.perseus.tufts.edu [Boyle link].

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Irish-ish: Boyle called himself ‘Irish by birth, but not by ancestry, residence or inclination’ (see Ann Stewart, 50 Irish Portraits, National Gallery, 1986).

Swift connection: Boyle’s Vindication cited in Encyclopedia Britannica article on Jonathan Swift as the subject of Swift’s Battle of the Books, in that Boyle wrote to put down Wotton and Bentley’s criticisms of Sir William Temple’s Essay on Ancient and Modern Learning (1692); but query, the latter published a year after the death of Boyle.

Books reviewed: Michael Hunter, ed., Robert Boyle Reconsidered (CUP [1994]), reviewed with other works including sections on Boyle, in Times Literary Supplement (6 Jan. 1995), [q.p.], where Rupert Hall, Afterword to Renaissance and Revolution: Humanists, scholars, craftsmen and natural philosophers in early modern Europe (CUP [1994]) is also cited [note conjectural dates]; review includes reference to remark of John Locke lumping Boyle with writers on husbandry, planting and gardening as fit for gentlemen ignorant of mathematics.

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