Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle, Portrait gallery

Robert Boyle

(25th January, 1627 – 31st December, 1691)

Towards the close of 1637, as it should seem, his father, who had purchased the manor of Stalbridge, in Dorsetshire, took him home.

Early Life

In October, 1638, he was sent abroad, under the charge of a governor, with his brother Francis. They visited France, Switzerland, and Italy ; and Philaretus's narrative of his travels is not without interest. The only incident which we shall mention as occurring during this period, is one which may be thought by many scarcely worthy of notice. Boyle himself used to speak of it as the most -considerable accident of his whole life ; and for its influence upon his life it ought not to be omitted.

Childhood Incident

While staying at Geneva, he was waked in the night by a thunder-storm of remarkable violence. Taken unprepared and startled, it struck him that the day of judgment was at hand ; " whereupon," to use his own words, " the consideration of his unpreparedness to welcome it, and the hideousness of being surprised by it in an unfit condition, made him resolve and vow, that if his fears that night were disappointed, all further additions to his life should be more religiously and watchfully employed." He has been spoken of as being a sceptic before this sudden conversion. This does not appear from his own account, farther than as any boy of fourteen may be so called, who has never taken the trouble fully to convince himself of those truths which he professes to believe.

Death of Father

On the breaking out of the rebellion in 1642, the troubled state of England, and the death of the Earl of Cork, involved the brothers in considerable pecuniary difficulties. They returned to England in 1644, and Robert, after a short delay, took possession of the manor of Stalbridge, which, with a considerable property in Ireland, had been bequeathed to him by his father. By the interest of his brother and sister, Lord Broghill and Lady Ranelagh, who were on good terms with the ruling party, he obtained protections for his property, and for the next six years made Stalbridge his principal abode. This portion of his life was chiefly spent in the study of ethical and natural philosophy ; and his name began already to be respected among the men of science of the day.

Mingling in Oxford

In 1652 he went to Ireland to look after his property, and spent the greater part of the next two years there. Returning to England in 1654, he settled at Oxford. That which especially directed him to this place, besides its being generally suited to the prosecution of all his literary and philosophical pursuits, was the presence of that knot of learned men, from whom the Royal Society took its rise. It consisted of a few only, but those eminent ; Bishop Wilkins, Wallis, Ward, Wren, and others, who used to meet for the purpose of conferring upon philosophical subjects, and mutually communicating and reasoning on their respective experiments and discoveries.

Declines Entering the Church

At the restoration, Boyle was treated with great respect by the King ; and was strongly pressed to enter the church by Lord Clarendon, who thought that his high birth, eminent learning, and exemplary character might be of material service to the revived establishment. After serious consideration he declined the proposal, upon two accounts, as he told Burnet ; first, because he thought that while he performed no ecclesiastical duties, and received no pay, his testimony in favour of religion would carry more weight ; secondly, because he felt no especial vocation to take holy orders, which he considered indispensable to the proper entering into that service.

Plagued By Illness

From this time forwards, Boyle's life is not much more than the history of his works. It passed in an even current of tranquil happiness, and diligent employment, little broken, except by illness, from which he was a great sufferer. At an early age, he was attacked by the stone, and continued through life subject to paroxysms of that dreadful disease : and in 1670, he was afflicted with a severe paralytic complaint, from which he fortunately recovered without sustaining any mental injury.

Royal Society

On the incorporation of the Royal Society in 1663, he was named as one of the council, in the charter ; and as he had been one of the original members, so through his life he continued to publish his shorter treatises in their Transactions.

Gospels and Acts

In 1662 he was appointed by the King, Governor of the Corporation for propagating the Gospel in New England. The diffusion of Christianity was a favourite subject of exertion with him through life. For the sole purpose of exerting a more effectual influence in introducing it into India, he became a Director of the East India Company ; and, at his own expense, caused the Gospels and Acts to be translated into Malay, and five hundred copies to be printed and sent abroad. He also caused a translation of the Bible into Irish to be made and published, at an expense of £700 ; and bore great part of the expense of a similar undertaking in the Welsh language. To other works of the same sort he was a liberal contributor : and as in speech and writing he was a zealous, yet temperate advocate of religion, so he showed his sincerity by a ready extension of his ample funds to all objects which tended to promote the religious welfare of his fellow-creatures.

President of the Royal Society

In the year 1666 he took up his abode in London, where he continued for the remainder of his life. We have little more to state of his personal history. He was elected President of the Royal Society in 1680, but declined that well-earned honour, as having, in his own words, " a great (and perhaps peculiar) tenderness in point of oaths." In the course of 1688 he began to feel his strength decline, and set himself seriously to complete those of his undertakings which he judged most important, and to arrange such of his papers as required to be prepared for publication.

Victim of Theft

It gives us rather a curious notion of the scientific morality of the day, to learn that he had been a great sufferer by the stealing of his papers. Such at least was his own belief, hinted in a public advertisement, and expressed more fully in his private communications. His manuscript books disappeared in an incomprehensible way, insomuch that he resolved to write upon loose sheets of paper, " that the ignorance of the coherence might keep men from thinking them worth stealing."

Notwithstanding he complains of numerous losses, and expresses a determination to secure the " remaining part of his writings, especially those that contain most matters of fact, by sending them maimed and unfinished, as they come to hand, to the press." A still more serious loss occurred to him through the carelessness of a servant, who broke a bottle of vitriol over a box of manuscripts prepared for publication, by which a large part of them were utterly ruined. To these misfortunes, the non-appearance of many promised works, and the imperfect state of others, is to be ascribed.


During the years 1689-90, he gradually withdrew himself more and more from his other employments, and from the claims of society, to devote himself entirely to the preparation of his papers. He died, unmarried, December 31, 1691, aged sixty-five years, and was buried in the chancel of St. Martin's-in-the-fields.


To give merely the dates and titles of Boyle's several publications, would occupy several pages. They are collected in five volumes folio, by Dr. Birch, and amount in number to ninety-seven. The philosophical works have been abridged in three volumes quarto by Dr. Shaw, who has prefixed to his edition a character of the author, and of his works.

From 1660 to the end of his life, every year brought fresh evidence of his close application to science, and the versatility of his talents, and the extent of his knowledge. His attention was directed to chemistry, mathematics, mechanics, medicine, anatomy ; but more especially to the former, in its many branches : and though he is not altogether free from the reproach of credulity, and appears not to have entirely freed himself from the delusions of the alchymists, still he did more towards overthrowing their mischievous doctrines, and establishing his favourite science on a firm foundation, than any man ; and his indefatigable diligence in inquiry, and unquestioned honesty of relation, entitle him to a very high place among the fathers of modern chemistry.

On this point we may quote the testimony of the celebrated Boerhaave, (Chemistry, vol. i. p. 55,) who says, that among the writers who have treated of Chemistry with a view to natural philosophy and medicine, we may reckon among the chief; the Hon. Robert Boyle. Redi also, in his Experimenta Naturalia,' affirms that in experimental philosophy there never was any man so distinguished, and that perhaps there never will be his equal in discovering natural causes.

Air Pump

It is, however, as the father of pneumatic philosophy that his scientific fame is most securely based. To the invention of the air-pump he possesses no claim, an instrument of that sort having been exhibited in 1654 by Otto Guericke of Magdeburg : but his improvements, and his well-combined and ingenious experiments first made that instrument of value, and proved the elasticity of the air. These were given to the world in his first published, and perhaps his most important work, entitled, New Experiments upon the Spring of the Air.'

Religious Treatises

A considerable portion of Boyle's works is occupied by religious treatises. Two of these, Seraphic Love,' and a Free Discourse against Swearing,' were written before he had reached the age of twenty ; though not published for many years after. He established by his will an annual lecture, " in proof of the Christian religion against notorious infidels." Bentley was the first preacher on this foundation.

Bishop Burnet's Funeral Sermon

Boyle's funeral sermon was preached by Bishop Burnet, who had been under some obligation to him for assistance in publishing his History of the Reformation. The sermon has been considered one of Burnet's best ; and it has this advantage, that funeral panegyric has seldom been more sincerely and honestly bestowed. We conclude by quoting one or two passages, which illustrate the beauty of Boyle's private character.

" He had brought his mind to such a freedom that he was not apt to be imposed on ; and his modesty was such that he -did not dictate to others ; but proposed his own sense with a due and decent distrust, and was ever very ready to hearken to what was suggested to him by others. When he differed from any, he expressed himself in so humble and obliging a way that he never treated things or persons with neglect, and I never heard that he offended any one person in his whole life by any part of his demeanour.

For if at any time he saw cause to speak roundly to any, it was never in passion, or with any reproachful or indecent expressions. And as he was careful to give those who conversed with him no cause or colour for displeasure, he was yet more careful of those who were absent, never to speak ill of any, in which he was the exactest man I ever knew. If the discourse turned to be hard on any, he was presently silent ; and if the subject was too long dwelt on, he would at last interpose, and, between reproof and raillery, divert it.

He was exactly civil, even to ceremony, and though he felt his easiness of access, and the desires of many, all strangers in particular, to be much with him, made great waste of his time ; yet, as he was severe in that, not to be denied when he was at home, so he said he knew the heart of a stranger, and how much eased his own had been, while travelling, if admitted to the conversation of those he desired to see ; therefore he thought his obligation to strangers was more than bare civility ; it was a piece of religious charity in him.

"He had, for almost forty years, laboured under such a feebleness of body, and such lowness of strength and spirits, that it will appear a. surprising thing to imagine how it was possible for him to read, to meditate, to try experiments, and write as he did. He bore all his infirmities, and some sharp pains, with the decency and submission that became a Christian and philosopher.

He had about him all that unaffected neglect of pomp in clothes, lodging, furniture, and equipage, which agreed with his grave and serious course of life. He was advised to a very ungrateful simplicity of diet, which, by all appearance, was that which preserved him so long beyond all men's expectation. This he observed so strictly, that in the course of above thirty years he neither ate nor drank to gratify the varieties of appetite, but merely to support nature ; and was so regular in it, that he never once transgressed the rule, measure and kind that were prescribed him.

His knowledge was of so vast an extent, that were it not for the variety of vouchers in their several sort, I should be afraid to say all I know. He carried the study of Hebrew very far into the Rabbinical writings and the other Oriental languages.

He had read so much out of the Fathers, that he had formed out of it a clear judgment of all the eminent ones. He had read a vast deal on the Scriptures, and had gone very nicely through the whole controversies on religion, and was a true master of the whole body of divinity. He read the whole compass of the mathematical sciences ; and though he did not set himself to spring any 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 travels, were his diversions.

He went very nicely 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 them to be most instructive. But for the history of nature, ancient or modern, of the productions of all countries, of the virtues and improvements of plants, of ores and minerals, and all the varieties that are in them in different climates, he was by much, by very much, the readied and perfectest I ever knew, in the greatest compass, and with the trued exactness. This put him in the way of making 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, may find how safely the world may depend upon them.

But his peculiar and favourite 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.

He spent neither his time nor his fortune upon the vain pursuits of high promises and pretensions. He always kept himself within the compass that his estate might well bear. And as he made chemistry much the better for his dealing with it, so he never made himself either the worse, or the poorer for it."

It would be easy to multiply testimonies of the high reputation in which Boyle was held : indeed the reader will find numerous instances collected in the article Boyle, in Dr. Kippis's Biographia Britannica,
the perusal of which will amply gratify the reader's curiosity. Still more detailed accounts of Boyle's life and character will be found in other works to which we have already referred, especially in Dr. Birch's Life.