Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/February 1893/Sketch of Robert Boyle
THE services of Robert Boyle to science are described in the National Biography as "unique, notwithstanding occasional failing on the side of credulousness"—a failing which Sir Henry Ackland excuses as due rather to the age than to the person. Boerhaave regarded Boyle as the father of experimental philosophy, "the ornament of his age and country, who succeeded to the genius and talent of the Chancellor of Verulam," and indulged in somewhat extravagant eulogy of his work.
Robert Boyle, the fourteenth child and seventh son of Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork and Orrery, was born at Lismore Castle, Munster, Ireland, January 25, 1627, and died in London, December 30, 1691. He was put into the care of a country nurse, with instructions to bring him up as she would one of her own children, his father saying that he would avoid the excessive tenderness which parents were liable to exercise toward their own children, guarding them as carefully from the sun and the rain "as if they were butter or sugar." Although the nurse carried out these instructions faithfully, her ward grew up of weak constitution and subject to many infirmities. He learned to speak Latin and French in his earliest years, but showed, as he advanced in his studies, a more decided inclination toward the sciences. When eight years old he was sent to Eton to school, leaving Ireland, according to Sir Henry W. Ackland's terse summary of his life, "in a gale of wind, and when the coast was 'infested by the Turkish Gallies'; but, after touching at 'Ilfordcombe and Minehead,' he happily arrived at Bristol. He shortly afterwards went to Eton, where (we are told) 'he lost much of that Latin that he had got; for he was so addicted to the more solid parts of knowledge that he hated the study of bare words naturally,'" The college was then under the charge of his father's friend, Sir Henry Wotton. After spending three years there, he was placed as a private pupil with the rector of Stalbridge, in Dorsetshire. In 1638 he started on his travels, under the care of a "wise and intelligent tutor," passing through Normandy to Paris, thence to Lyons, and thence to Geneva, where he stayed twenty-one months. In the autumn of 1641 he visited Switzerland and Italy, to spend the winter in Florence, where, he himself wrote, he "spent his spare hours in reading . . . the new paradoxes of that great stargazer Galileo, whose ingenious books, perhaps because they could not be so otherwise, were confuted by a decree from Rome; his Highness the Pope, it seems, presuming, and that justly, that the infallibility of his chair extended equally to determine points in philosophy and religion, and loth to have the stability of that earth questioned, in which he had established his kingdom."
"At length," says Sir Henry W. Ackland, "Boyle arrived at Rome, where he passed as a Frenchman. He was shocked by much which he saw and heard of the life and immorality of even the clergy there." He studied unceasingly, reading much on all his journeys. At Marseilles, in 1642, he learned of the breaking out of the rebellion in Ireland, a fact that was more deeply impressed upon his mind by the consequent impossibility of getting any money from home, and he did not return to England till 1644. There he learned of the death of his father, and found himself heir of certain estates in Ireland and of the manor of Stalbridge. In London, the next year, he became a member of the Philosophical College, a society of scientific men, which, in consequence of the political agitation of the times, held its meetings as secretly as possible, first in London and then in Oxford, and was called the "Invisible College." After the Restoration this society was incorporated by Charles II as the Royal Society. "The course of Boyle's life," says Sir H. W. Ackland, "must be considered as now fully determined. He had gradually acquired a keen interest both in science and theology, an interest never to be abated, and henceforth interlaced with all his thoughts and writings." In 1646 he settled at Stalbridge, and devoted himself to study, scientific research and experiments, and authorship. Visiting Ireland in 1652, he made anatomical dissections with Sir William Petty, and verified by actual experiments the circulation of the blood. He removed to Oxford, where he lived fourteen years, enjoying the society of many learned men. Here he made improvements in Otto von Guericke's air pump, and by curious experiments made various discoveries on the properties of air, the propagation of sound, etc., the most important of which was the discovery of the law called Mariotte's in the text-books, but more properly Boyle's, of the intimate relation between the volume of a gas and the pressure. He constantly, say his French biographers, opposed the teaching of Aristotle, which was still current in the schools; and was, like Bacon, convinced that the truth could be discovered only by experiment. He would not even read the works of Descartes, lest, finding in them more imagination than observation, and hypotheses rather than facts, he should be tempted out of his chosen path. None of the scientific systems then in vogue were received by him. In particular he brought experimental demonstrations to bear against the theory that salt, sulphur, and mercury were the essential principles of bodies. He allowed matter no properties but mechanical ones. To him we owe the exact determination of the fact that air is absorbed in calcinations and combustions, and that metallic calces are heavier than the original metals—observations which long afterward served as one of the bases for modern chemistry. By completing the air pump, Sir Henry W. Ackland says, he "revolutionized the instrumentalities by which the atmosphere of the earth, the gases, many phenomena of life, and infinite chemical actions may be forever studied. It led, I doubt not, to the suggestion of rules proposed for the investigation of the Peak of Teneriffe—no small effort in the seventeenth century—and thus attempted to settle one physical problem which was set forth with great detail and precision by the Royal Society of the time." In his essays on this instrument, he "foresaw the far-reaching results through its agency of a more precise knowledge of the physical and the chemical properties of the atmosphere, . . . its relation to all organic life, and to meteorology in the widest cosmical sense. Henceforward he applied himself to experiments with this instrument, combined with his increasing power of chemical investigation, into almost all matter, above, upon, and within the globe; to vapors, to metals and stones of every kind. He studied respiration in the higher animals, investigated the effects of respired air on birds, on reptiles, on snails, and on plants, and the manner of death in each. Though experiments on living animals such as could then be performed were abhorrent to his tender soul, yet the knowledge of Nature was to him a religion; and he had to pierce through the secrets of life, the cause of disease, of suffering, and of death by every means that his ingenuity could devise."
When the Royal Society was incorporated, in 1663, Boyle was named a member of the Council. He was elected president of the society in 1689, but declined to serve in the office on account of his scruples against taking the oath. He was at one time interested in alchemy, and carried on experiments on the transmutation of metals. In the interest of this business he secured the repeal of the statute against multiplying gold and silver.
The religious side of Boyle's character was as prominent as the scientific side. Some experiences that happened to him in early youth gave a tinge of melancholy to his disposition; and he was moved by the reflections to which he was led by this trait to give himself for a considerable time wholly to an inquiry into the principles and the evidences of Christianity. Vital and sincere as was his faith, he was occasionally troubled with doubts, which he spoke of as being to the soul like toothache to the body, not mortal, but very inconvenient. The works of apologetics current in his time did not satisfy his mind, and he went to the original sources, studying Hebrew and the Oriental languages, and calling in the aid of the best theological scholars contemporary with him. The result of this inquiry was a conviction, the intensity of which was manifested by a great activity in religious discussion and religious work. He founded a lectureship on the evidences of Christianity; contributed liberally to projects for the spread of the gospel in India and America; bore the expense of publishing translations of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles into Malay, and of publishing an Irish Bible; contributed to the publication of the Welsh Bible and a Turkish New Testament; and aided with money in Pococke's translation of Grotius's De Veritate into Arabic. The learned Sanderson having been deposed from his benefice on account of his loyalty to Charles II, he gave him a pension on condition that he would write a work on questions of conscience. When invited to take orders in the Church, he declined to do so, on the ground that that was not his vocation, and that his writings on religious subjects would have greater weight coming from a layman than from a paid minister.
Boyle left Oxford about 1668 and settled in London, fixing his residence in the house of his sister, Lady Ranelagh. His health began to fail seriously about 1690, and he was obliged to withdraw gradually from all his public engagements. He discontinued his contributions to the Royal Society, resigned his office as governor of the corporation for the propagation of the gospel in New England, and announced publicly that he could no longer receive visits. He devoted his time to chemical investigation, the accounts of which he left "as a kind of hermetic legacy to the studious disciples of that art." His health continued to grow worse, and his death occurred precisely one week after that of his sister, with whom he had lived for twenty years. By his will he founded and endowed the Boyle Lectures for the demonstration of the truth of the Christian religion "against atheists, theists, pagans, Jews, and Mohammedans."
Boyle was never married. In person he was tall, slender, and of a pale countenance. "While his scientific discoveries procured him wide and lasting renown, his private character and virtues, the charm of his social manners, and his wit and conversation endeared him to a large number of personal friends."
Boyle's place in science should be estimated by the relation of his work to his time, not to ours. He was a leader, much in advance. Sir John Herschel says that he "seemed animated by an enthusiasm of ardor, which hurried him from subject to subject, and from experiment to experiment, without a moment's intermission, and with a sort of undistinguishing appetite." Sir Henry W. Ackland suggests that he had so many qualities, and pursued so many lines of thought, that they almost dim one another. From his "quality of prudence, and from his steadfast adherence to the supreme test of experiment, he was led to doubt and to test several opinions in the science of the day, and to overthrow dogmas which had been unquestioned. This skepticism in scientific matters influenced, his mind at every moment, and is apparent in many of his treatises on several 'cosmical' subjects which deeply interested him; but his scientific convictions, formed on adequate grounds, and on any subject-matter, were immovable. It is probable that the greatest service he did to his country and to mankind was by kindling in the minds of his contemporaries an enthusiasm for science, a desire to explore and know Nature, in those turbulent and disastrous days when Wilkins's and Wallis's papers were burned by the mob, Harvey's anatomical dissections destroyed, and Gresham College turned into barracks. In his day he, more than almost any other man, kept alive the torch which kindled the undying fire of the Royal Society."
Bishop Burnet, a contemporary and a man of the court, says: "His knowledge was of so vast an extent that, if it were not for the variety of vouchers, in their several sorts, I should be afraid to say all I know." After referring to his knowledge on theological matters, the bishop continues: "He ran the whole compass of the mathematical sciences, and, though he did not set himself to spring new game, yet he knew even the abstrusest parts of geometry; geography, in the several parts of it that related to navigation or travelling; history and books of travel were his diversions. He went, very nearly, through all the parts of physic; only the tenderness of his nature made him less able to endure the exactness of anatomical dissections, especially of living animals, though he knew those to be the most instructing; but, for the history of Nature, ancient and modern, of the productions of all countries, of the virtues and improvements of plants, of ores and minerals, and all the varieties in them, he was by much, by very much, the readiest and the perfectest I ever knew, in the greatest compass, and with the truest exactness. This put him in the way of making all that vast variety of experiments, beyond any man, as far as we know, that ever lived. And in these, as he made a great progress in new discoveries, so he used so nice a strictness, and delivered them with so scrupulous a truth, that all who have examined them have found how safely the world may depend upon them. But his peculiar and favorite study was chemistry, in which he engaged with none of those ravenous and ambitious designs that draw many into them. His design was only to find out Nature; to see into what principles things might be resolved, and of what they were compounded, and to prepare good medicaments for the bodies of men."
Of Boyle's scientific works, the earliest was New Experiments, Physico-mechanical, touching the Spring of Air and its Effects, published in 1660. It was followed, in 1662, by The Sceptical Chemist, which was afterward reprinted, with additions. In 1663 he published the first part, and in 1671 the second part, of Considerations touching the Usefulness of Experimental Philosophy. He also published, in 1663, an important volume of Experiments and Considerations upon Colors, with Observations on a Diamond that Shines in the Dark. Other scientific works are, New Experiments and Observations upon Cold, 1665; Origin of Forms and Qualities according to the Corpuscular Philosophy, 1666; Tracts about the Cosmical Qualities of Things, the Temperature of the Subterraneous Regions, and the Bottom of the Sea, 1669; Origin and Virtues of Gems, 1672; Essays on the Subtilty and Determinate Nature of Effluvia, 1673; tracts on the Saltness of the Sea, the Moisture of the Air, the Natural and Preternatural State of Bodies, Cold, Hidden Qualities of the Air, Celestial Magnates, Hobbes's Problem of a Vacuum, and the Cause of Attraction and Suction, 1674; Experiments and Notes about the Mechanical Origin or Production of Particular Qualities, including a Discourse on Electricity, 1676; the Aërial Noctiluca, or some New Phenomena, and a Process of a Factitious Self-shining Substance, 1680; New Experiments and Notes upon the Icy Noctiluca, to which is added a Chemical Paradox; Memoirs for the History of Human Blood, 1684; Short Memoirs for the Experimental History of Mineral Waters, 1685; Medicina Hydrostatica, 1690; Experimenta et Observationes Physicæ, 1691; and, published after his death, the General History of the Air Designed and Begun; an account of his making the phosphorus, September 30, 1680; and Medicinal Experiments. Most of the volumes of his works, with many manuscripts, exist in the library of the Royal Society. The works were collected in five folio volumes in 1744; a more complete edition, in six large quarto volumes, with a life by the editor, Dr. Birch, published in 1772, contains most of his scientific writings, several theological treatises, and numerous letters from him and to him.