While Boyle’s published output embraced a multiplicity of subjects; from natural history to medicine, from history to theology; his most important work centred on the fields of Chemistry and Physics. His central working methodology was to proceed by controlled experiments with elaborate details of apparatus, observations and other details published or disbursed to others with subsequent responses evaluated and any modifications added.
The key mechanical device in his early work was his air-pump or “Pneumatical Engine” which was,
“an advance over Otto Von Guericke’s spheres in that it provided a glass receptacle into which candles, mice and other objects could be placed for experimentation. Air was ratcheted out from a cylinder and piston attached through a stopcock to the receptacle.”
This tool was engineered by Boyle’s assistant Robert Hooke [1635-1703] and was completed in 1659. His early experiments were detailed in his first major publication “The spring and weight of the air” published in 1660. In the second edition of this work Boyle’s Law was set out on principles first propounded in 1661 by Henry Power. Boyle demonstrated in these experiments how air was necessary for the transmission of sound, the existence of fire and the continuance of life itself.
In 1661 he published his seminal work “The Sceptical Chymist” wherein he explores the idea of the “element.” This work presents a key departure from the proliferation of “dull and insipid” textbooks of the time in Boyle’s use of dialogue as a literary device and critically in his “philosophical interpretation of the experiments.” (27) This work also marks his clear break with the alchemist’s tradition of secrecy “with his conviction and insistence on publishing in great experimental detail.” Boyle in this was among the first scientists to publish the details of his work, including unsuccessful experiments. He did, however, continue to maintain his belief in the possibility of alchemical transmutation and to comprehend him properly we should understand that he continued to believe in the Philosophers’ stone (28) and while his early interest was in its chemical power he was later preoccupied by its spiritual aspects and wrote that,
“the acquisition of the Philosophers-stone may be an inlett into another sort of knowledge and a step to the attainment of some intercourse with good spirits.” (29)
His work on Chemical analysis was equally groundbreaking as “he observed that all acids turned a particular vegetable indicator from blue to red and all alkalis turned the indicator green. He found that some substances did not change the colour of the indicator and concluded these were neutral. He thus provided an operational method of classifying substances.” It was also in the Sceptical Chymist that Boyle elaborated on his “corpuscular theory of matter.” (30)
(27) Clericuzio, Antonio Carneades and the chemists: A study of the Sceptical Chymist and its impact on seventeenth-century chemistry. [In] Hunter, Michael [ed.] Robert Boyle reconsidered. U.K. Cambridge University Press 1994
(28) The Philosophers stone is a legendary substance supposedly capable of turning base metals into gold and sometimes believed to be an elixir of life. Its discovery was for centuries the grail in Western alchemy.
(29) Principe, Lawrence M. Boyle’s alchemical pursuits [In] Hunter, Michael [ed.] Robert Boyle reconsidered. U.K. Cambridge University Press 1994 pg. 100
(30) A minute particle of matter eventually understood to be atoms. This theory was set out in “The Cosmicall Qualities of Things.”
Boyle was a central figure in the establishment of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific organization in the world. The Society was created as a forum for scientific discussion and debate but perhaps it’s most lasting legacy is the journal “Philosophical Transactions”. This journal now available online contains the most extraordinary, enduring and inspiring encyclopaedic catalogue of articles by virtually every major researcher on scientific subjects for the past three centuries.
The Society began life as the “Invisible College of natural philosophers” in 1645 inspired by the work of Francis Bacon. Boyle joined this group in 1653 through the influence of Samuel Hartlib already a prominent member since the inception of the Society. A formal re-invention was made on the 28th of November 1660 at 12 Gresham College following a lecture by Christopher Wren [1632-1723] when the “Colledge for Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning” was established. Robert Hooke became its first curator. It is very significant that Boyle was present at the inauguration meeting and was one of the twelve most active members between 1660 and 1663: “Boyle, Brouncker, Charleton, Croone, Evelyn, Goddard, Moray, Oldenburg, Petty, Rooke, Wilkins and Wren.” (31)
The nameless group became known as the Royal Society in 1661 when the first such appellation appeared in print. Following the granting of its second Royal Charter in 1663 it was called the “Royal Society of London for improving Natural Knoweldge.” The first book published in 1662 by the Society was John Evelyn’s Sylva, which was a major influence on the work of Charles Smith. Then in 1665 the “Philosophical Transactions” first appeared edited by Henry Oldenburg (32) [1618-1677]. By the 1663 Charter Boyle was appointed one of the Council of the learned body and “as he had been one of the principal persons to whom that Society owed its first rise and progress he continued during the rest of his life one of its most useful members.” (33) The motto of the Society undoubtedly owes much to the work of Boyle, “nullius in verba,” or nothing in words, and suggests that science should be based on solid experimentation.
A significant controversy was generated by the publication of the history of the society by Thomas Sprat(t) [1635-1713] (34) and a supportive pamphlet written by Joseph Glanvill [1636-1680] (35). The main protagonist on the alternative side was Henry Stubbe [1632-1676] who in a letter to Boyle described Sprat’s work as this “pernicious history” which would “subvert the protestant religion and the Church of England.” (36)
(31) Oster, Malcolm. Virtue, providence and political neutralism: Boyle and Interregnum politics. [In] Hunter, Michael [ed.] Robert Boyle reconsidered. U.K. Cambridge University Press 1994 pg. 30
(32) Henry Oldenburg served as tutor to Richard Jones son of Katherine Ranelagh. He was also a key figure in the Court of King William.
(33) Farrington, Thomas A life of the Honble. Robert Boyle pg. 18
(34) Sprat, Thomas. The history of the royal Society of London for the improving of knowledge. [with verses addressed to the Society, by A. Cowley] London: J.R., for J. Martyn, 1667 438p.
(35) Glanvill, Joseph Plus ultra; or the Progress and advancement of knowledge since the days of Aristotle. In an account of some…late improvements of practical useful learning…Occasioned by s conference with one of the Notional way. London, 1668
(36) Boyle, Robert. The works Vol. I. pg. xci