Robert Boyle was the youngest of fourteen children and the seventh son of Richard Boyle, first early of Cork. At the age of eight, Boyle was sent to Eton College where he demonstrated enthusiasm and aptitude for learning. In 1638 Boyle’s father took him out of Eton, and in 1639 he left on his continental tour with his brother and chaperone, Isaac Marcombes. During his time abroad he spent most of his time in Geneva where he studied a number of subjects and, as he would recount later, a conversion experience inspired by a particularly intense thunderstorm. Boyle moves to London in 1644, and then to Stalbridge, Dorset the next year.
Boyle’s first writings concentrate on religious matters: his first work, Aretology, was about ethical elements that are supposed to act as foundations for morality and the pursuit of virtue. Soon thereafter, Boyle writes The Martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus, a work of fiction in the style of French romances, and was said to be the first to use such conventions to garnish religious writing by Samuel Johnson. Later, in 1659, Boyle continues his work in ethics with Some Motives and Incentives to Love God, also called Seraphic Love.
By 1649 Boyle begins to develop an interest in science. He successfully builds a laboratory in his house in Stalbridge, and the work he produces shows an enthusiasm for both experimental knowledge and its capacity to be used for apologetics. His early work consists of empirical observations in chemistry regarding gold and mercury, among other substances, and the minute structures of living things which results in an interest in atomism. In the early 1650s, Boyle writes a short essay entitled judicium de chemia & chemicis which anticipates his critique of his contemporary chemists in Sceptical Chymist.
In the mid-1650s Boyle moves to Oxford to join a coterie of scientists at Wadham College organized by John Wilkins. Wilkins leaves in 1659 and Boyle begins to host the meetings of this group at his home. During this time, he also starts to take on the continental scientists, notably Descartes and Gassendi, and hires Robert Hooke to both help him with this research and in some of his experiments. Boyle seems to emphasize experimental science’s capacity for apologetics less, and the science for its own sake, though he recognizes the tension between Thomas Hobbes’ mechanical philosophy, science, and religion. Boyle expresses his continued interest in both the material and spiritual implications of science when he writes Some Considerations Touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy in which he again stresses the usefulness of science for religion, before turning to the medical benefits of experimental science. He progresses to Certain Physiological Essays in which he claims that natural changes and sensory effects are the result of interactions between minute objects he calls corpuscles, thus revising the nomenclature of atomism to avoid stigmas.
In 1660 Boyle publishes for the first time, and has a large store of materials to release. His most famous work was Sceptical Chymist in 1661 which presents a dialogue attaching the doctrine of the four elements, and forward his theory of corpuscles. However, New Experiments Pysio-Mechanical, Touching the spring of the Air and its Effects in 1660 presented his experiments involving a vacuum chamber or “air pump” which he constructed with the help of Hooke. This work and his growing celebrity gave rise to the “air pump” as standard equipment for a laboratory across Europe. These early publications create a name for Boyle as he continues to publish his experiments which include The Origin of Forms and Qualities, Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours, and New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold—out of which comes Boyle’s Law.
During this same period, Boyle begins his involvement with the Royal Society. He was present at the inaugural meeting in November of 1660. Boyle becomes an extremely active member of the Society, and was even praised as a model for their scientific work in Joseph Glanvill’s Plus ultra in 1668. Boyle’s standing in the Royal Society is greatly increased in 1666 with the publication of Hydrostatical Paradoxes, a response to Blaise Pascal’s work. Between his work with the Royal Society and his publications during the 1660s, Boyle achieves no small amount of celebrity among European intellectuals.
Boyle eventually moves to London and lives with his sister, Lady Ranelagh. After he establishes his laboratory in an out building, it becomes a popular attraction for both travelers and Londoners to visit Boyle where he conducts his experiments. He continues to publish his experiments and returns to ethical and religious themes once again. By the late 1680s Boyle’s death is in decline and he withdraws from the Royal Society and the visits to his laboratory. He begins to anticipate his death, apologizing for inaccuracies and making large efforts to organize his papers before he can no longer work. In December 1691, Boyle dies. His contributions are pivotal to science and religious culture during the seventeenth century, changing the course of discourse not only in England, but across Europe.
D. Geoffrey Emerson
Hunter, Michael. ‘Boyle, Robert (1627–1691)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/3137, accessed 22 Sept 2014]