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For information: Brief History of Atomic Theory

From the ancient Greek philosophers:

Empedocles (495 BC - 430 BC): Everything based on four 'elements'

  • water (representing liquids)

  • air (representing gases)

  • earth (representing solids)

  • fire (representing heat)

The proportions of these four elements accounted for the difference between one 'matter' and another.

Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC): Added a 'fifth' element

æther (representing the divine, spirituality)

Democritus (460 BC - 370 BC): Put forward the concept of Atomism (the word Atom is ancient Greek for 'indivisible').

All matter made of particles (atoms). When there was no matter then a void existed. Atoms were of an infinite number, could not be destroyed, could not be divided and could combine with each other.

Alchemists through the ages followed the five elements theory of Aristotle.

Albertus Magnus (13th Century): a great fan of Aristotle who translated his writings so that they were accessible to scholars of the day.

Paracelsus (16th Century) : introduced iatrochemistry (an early form of medical chemistry). He proposed that there were three 'elements' that played a part in all diseases:

  • Sulfur (the combustible element that represented the soul)

  • Mercury (the fluid and changeable element that represented the spirit)

  • Salt (the solid and permanent element that represented the body)

Early 17th Century : Re-discovery of Atomism in the form of Corpuscularianism.

Corpuscularianism was very similar to Atomism but the belief was that the 'corpuscles' (atoms) could be divided and that liquid mercury could be added to a metal so as to change that metal into another. This was the alchemists 'transmutation'.

Galileo (1564 - 1642) developed the corpuscular theory. He used the term 'corporeal substances' for materials.

René Descartes (1596 - 1650) was an advocate of Corpuscularianism but he did not accept the concept of a void.

Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691) who clung to the alchemist idea of transmutation of metals, was a Corpuscularian, influenced by Galileo but he disagreed with Descartes since Boyle's experiments with the vacuum pump had proved that a void was possible.



Boyle's main contributions to Experimental Physics

Boyles Law (also known as the Boyle-Mariotte Law)


Modern apparatus used to prove Boyle's Law

If the pressure of the gas is measured at different volumes while the temperature remains constant, the results are as shown by the graph below.

Graph 1

Changes of pressure and volume which take place at constant temperature are called isothermal changes. The curve above is called an isothermal.

The general shape of this graph should be no surprise since we know that the pressure exerted by a gas increases as it is compressed into a smaller volume.

However, if we now plot pressure against 1/volume, we obtain the following graph.

Graph 2

The pressure of a fixed mass of gas at constant temperature is inversely proportional to the volume.


From Boyle's experiments with a vacuum

  • Sound does not travel through a vacuum

  • Magnetism can travel through a vacuum

  • Light can travel through a vacuum

  • Electric forces operate in a vacuum

  • A vacuum does not support combustion

That air has 'weight' and that not all of air supports combustion (it needs to be remembered that the composition of the air, and even the elements that are found in air, had not yet been discovered!)



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Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691)


Robert Boyle

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.

Vacuum pump

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.


Sceptical Chymist

The sceptical chymist 1661 (Chemical Heritage Foundation)


Boyle's legacy to chemistry is summarized below:

  • He was the first to use the term Chemistry (as opposed to Alchemy)

  • He made his work public (Alchemists, famously, did not publish their 'secrets')

  • He stressed the importance of accurately recording the method of an experiment so that it could be repeated by other scientists.

  • He encouraged the repetition of experiments in order to obtain consistent results.

  • He made it clear that there was no such thing as a 'wrong result' and that unexpected results could lead to new areas of scientific enquiry.

  • He developed the Litmus Test for acids and alkalis and he developed other qualitative, specific chemical tests.


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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