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HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691)
Robert Boyle by Johann Kerseboom (NPG)
Robert Boyle was born in Lismore Castle, County Waterford, Ireland during the reign of King Charles I. His father, Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork was a wealthy, English Protestant aristocrat who had acquired the Irish estates that had once been owned by Sir Walter Raleigh. Richard Boyle's first wife had died shortly after the birth of his first child. His second wife, Catherine Fenton, not only brought more estates to the marriage but also produced another fourteen children, of which Robert Boyle was the seventh and last son. Catherine died when Robert was only two years old and he was fostered out to a local family for the first few years of his life.
At eight years old, Robert was sent to Eton and, along with one of his older brothers, he was housed with the headmaster, John Harrison, who was a friend of Richard Boyle. During this time the boys were assigned a private tutor named Robert Carew. However, the stay at Eton was short lived since John Harrison retired in 1638 and Richard Boyle, taking a dislike to the methods of the new Headmaster, moved his sons to his estate in Dorest, Stalbridge House, where they were privately tutored.
At only twelve years old, Robert Boyle was sent on a tour of the continent along with his older brother Francis and a a French tutor, Issac Marcombes. This lengthy tour was to take five years and cover the classical sites of Italy and Greece, as well as the cities of Paris and Geneva. It happened that Robert Boyle, aged fourteen, found himself in Florence the year that Galileo died. Even at this young age, Robert had been fascinated by Galileo's work, particularly the way that he had used mathematics to explain motion.
Robert Boyle had to wait longer than expected to return to England. The Irish Rebellion in 1641 had kept his father occupied back home and unable to send the funds needed for his son's return journey. Robert did manage the return in 1644, a year after the death of his father. England was in the grip of the First Civil War and Robert took refuge with his sister Katherine who lived in London. Katherine Boyle had married Arthur Jones, 2nd Viscount Ranelagh a staunch Parliamentarian. Robert Boyle took no side in the Civil War and preferred to sit it out at Stalbridge House that had been left to him, along with estates in Ireland, in his father's will.
It took Boyle quite a while to reach Stalbridge but once there, between 1649 and 1650, he converted part of the house into a laboratory where he carried out his research. During his time at Stalbridge Boyle travelled to Oxford to attend meetings of the 'Philosophical College' (that he also referred to as the 'Invisible College') a society that was dedicated to the new Natural Philosophy and experimental sciences. The Philosophical College was the precursor of the Royal Society. Politically the country was now under the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell after the execution of the King in 1649.
Boyle travelled to Ireland in 1652 to visit his estates left to him by his father. His stay was short, only a couple of years. The letters he wrote from this time indicate that he felt that he was not managing to progress with his research although his paper 'Of the Atomicall Philosophy ', advocating Atomist ideas, was written during this period. While in Ireland, Boyle developed a fever that may have been the result of a riding accident. This illness left him with weak eyes and trembling hands. The long-term effect was that, from that time on, Boyle needed to employ people to read and to take notes for him.
Returning to England in 1654, Boyle moved to Oxford where he set up a laboratory. He was fortunate enough to meet an undergraduate named Robert Hooke who became Boyle's assistant. Hooke was adept in mechanical engineering and was able to improve on Otto von Guericke's recently invented vacuum pump. The two scientists' experiments on air and on the effects of a vacuum led to important discoveries.
From New Experiments Physico-Mechanical: Touching the Spring of the Air and their Effects Robert Boyle 1661
The year 1660 saw the restoration of King Charles II to the throne and the formation of the Royal Society of which Boyle was a founding member. In 1661 Boyle published 'The Sceptical Chymist ' that marked a turning point by bringing chemistry out of the dark ages of alchemy. Boyle was, in fact, an alchemist in that he believed in the transmutation of metals. However, his book admonished alchemists for their secrecy and mystical approach to their experiments.
The sceptical chymist 1661 (Chemical Heritage Foundation)
Boyle was a Corpulscularian (see left). He defined elements as simple substances that could not be decomposed into other substances. Compounds were formed from the combination of elements and he was able to distinguish compounds from mixtures. Boyle did not believe that and elements had yet been discovered (he saw gold, silver etc. as being compounds).
In 1668, at forty one years old, Boyle left Oxford and moved to London. He set up a laboratory in his sister's house in Pall Mall. Two years later he suffered a bad stroke but he did make a full recovery. He was offered the presidency of the Royal Society in 1680 but felt that his religious beliefs would not be in accordance with the presidential oath so he declined the position. Katherine Jones died in 1691 and her brother died of a stroke one week after, quite possibly brought on by grief. Robert Boyle was buried in the churchyard of St Martins in the Fields, Westminster. Unfortunately, around 1849 during the Victorian era, the crypts and churchyard of St Martins in the Fields were cleared for development and the coffins were transferred to other churchyards and placed in unmarked graves. Robert Boyle's grave has never been found.
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