Robert Boyle (1627-1691)
Robert Boyle was born at Lismore Castle, Munster on 25 January 1627, the fourteenth child and seventh son of Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork. Robert Boyle was educated mainly by tutors and himself. He had no formal university education but read widely and made contact with many of the most important natural philosophers of his day, both at home and abroad. He had independent means which enabled him to have his own laboratory and to support religious charities. He was active in the ‘Invisible College’, an informal body devoted to the ‘new philosophy’ which in 1663 became the Royal Society, of which he was a Council member. He moved to Oxford in 1654, where he set up a laboratory with Robert Hooke as his assistant There he did most of his experimental work until 1668 when he went to live in London with his sister Lady Ranelagh.
He was made an honorary Doctor of Medicine of Oxford in 1688. In his autobiographical account (Works, vol. 1, pp. xxi–xxvi) he reflects on his noble birth that ‘being born heir to a great family is but a glittering kind of slavery’ and ‘is ever an impediment to the knowledge of many retired truths, that cannot be attained without familiarity with meaner persons’. He indeed developed a keen interest in the work of artisans because they tend to know more than anyone else about the materials of their trades. He makes a general remark about religious beliefs that ‘though we cannot always give a reason for what we believe, we should ever be able to give a reason why we believe it’, which is surely a precept that guided his attitude to natural philosophy as well.
Boyle was a prolific writer and experimenter on most scientific subjects that were attracting interest at the time. He investigated some alchemical claims about which he was largely skeptical in his published works. He was a devoutly religious man but wrote mainly about practical and ethical religious matters rather than engaging in theological controversy. He argued for the tolerance of different religious beliefs, and spent a good deal of money on propagating the gospel in New England and the Orient, sponsoring translations of the Bible into foreign languages.
He published many experimental reports and did original work on chemical indicators, human blood, color, fire, medicine, and hydrostatics. With Hooke he developed Guericke’s air pump, which he needed for his experiments. His first major publication was his book on the ‘spring’ of the air (1660), in the second edition of which (1662) we find the first statement of what came to be known as ‘Boyle’s Law’, about the relation between the pressure and volume of gases (Works, vol. 1, pp. 156–9). He expressed admiration for Bacon’s Novum Organum, Descartes’s Principles of Philosophy, and the work of ancient and recent atomists, although he says that in his early days he refrained from reading them carefully because he feared that he might be seduced by their reliance on pure reason rather than...