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Boyle, Robert

1. Dates
Born: Lismore, Ireland, 25 Jan. 1627
Died: London, 31 Dec. 1691
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 64
2. Father
Occupation: Aristocrat
Boyle was the son of the fabulously wealthy Earl of Cork, an Elizabethan adventurer who enriched himself in Ireland. Boyle was the fourteen (and next to youngest) child, the seventh son.
Wealthy is the undoubted word.
3. Nationality
Birth: Irish
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: No University
Boyle attended Eton for four years and then was educated by private tutors, mostly on the continent. He had no university degree. However, he was resident in Oxford for about twelve years, from 1656 to 1668, and he clearly absorbed a great deal of university culture.
He was created M.D. at Oxford in 1665; I do not list this degree, which was clearly honorary.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican
I think it is clear that he conformed to the established church. He was, however, deeply influenced by his Puritan sister.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Chemistry, Natural Philosophy
Subordinate: Physics, Alchemy
His work in chemistry and in the promotion of the mechanical philosophy of nature is too well known to need repetition here, as also the work that established Boyle's Law.
I hesitated some before listing alchemy, but his interest and involvement in the Art are in fact well established.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Personal Means
Boyle inherited wealth more than sufficient to support him throughout his life without ever having gainful employment of any sort. He was dependent on nobody and was in fact quite wealthy.
8. Patronage
Type: Court Official
Charles II offered various honors to Boyle, such as the provostship of Eton College and a peerage, which he declined. There is no suggestion that the King's patronage involved any financial dimension (though Eton would have). Nevertheless Boyle did receive some favors that he wanted from Charles, such as appointment to the Board of the East India Company (of interest to Boyle in order better to propagate the Gospel) and membership in the Company of Royal Mines. In 1662 the court granted him a forfeited estate in Ireland, the income of which he attempted to use for the advancement of learning and the dissemination of Christianity. As Maddison says, he was much in favor at court.
In 1661 he was appointed Governor of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, a position he held until 1689. Note that Boyle himself was probably one of the petitioners who requested the charter of the society.
It is of interest to note that wealthy Robert Boyle did not dedicate many books to others. He dedicated a translation of an anatomical work that he had commissioned to Hartlib. He dedicated Seraphic Love, 1659 to one sister, Considerations Touching the Style of the Holy Scriptures, 1661, to a brother, and Occasional Reflections, 1665, to another sister. All the rest of his many books came out without dedications. Interestingly, his last posthumous work, Free Discourse Against Swearing, 1695, was dedicated by the publisher to Boyle's brother, the second Earl of Cork.
With his wealth, Boyle became rather a patron himself. Already in 1651 Highmore dedicated a work to him. In the 50's Starkey called Boyle his patron and dedicated Pyrotechny Asserted, 1658, to him. Two other authors also dedicated two other books to him in 1658. Hooke dedicated his first publication, in 1661, to Boyle. Lower, Sydenham, and Wallis all dedicated books to him, and there were quite a few others that I have not bothered to list. He bestowed a pension of L50 per year on Robert Sanderson to write on cases of conscience.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Instruments, Chemistry, Pharmacology
I list the air pump, although the instrument itself was primarily Hooke's work.
More asserts flatly (p. 204) that Boyle was involved in, and perhaps organized, a commerical enterprise that produced chemicals. Undoubted he refers to the enterprise of Ambrose Hanckwitz, who was Boyle's assistant for a time. The issue is obscure. However, in a publication Hanckwitz did thank Boyle for his assistance and called Boyle his promoter.
More also asserts (p. 117) that Boyle carried out explorations for the Royal Company of Mines for industrial and medical resources. Perhaps I should list this under metallurgy or mining, but, knowing a fair bit about Boyle, I confess to some skepticism.
Boyle was involved in a project to distill salt water into fresh at sea.
From an early age he was interested in medicine and medicines. He was chronically ill, looked industriously for cures, and wrote and published on this as well. Thus, Experimental History of Mineral Waters, 1685, Of the Reconcileableness of Specifick Medicines to the Corpuscular Philosophy, 1685, and Medicinal Experiments: or, a Collection of Choice Remedies, 1692 (posthomous).
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Royal Society
Informal connections: the Invisible College (Hartlib's circle), 1640's to 1656, and the Oxford group, 1656 to at least 60. Considerable correspondence is published in his Works and more will appear in the new Works when it is completed.
Royal Society, 1660-91. He was present and active during the early days of the society, especially after he moved definitively to London in 1668 (though he was frequently in London before 1668). He was often on the Council and was elected President in 1680, though he declined the office.
Sources
  1. M.B. Hall, Robert Boyle on Natural Philosophy, (Bloomington, IN, 1967). QC16 B7H17 _____, Robert Boyle and Seventeenth-Century Chemistry, (Cambridge, 1958).
  2. L.T. More, The Life and Works of the Honorable Robert Boyle, (New York, 1944). R.E.W. Maddison, The Life of the Honourable Robert Boyle, F.R.S., (London, 1969).
  3. John F. Fulton, A Bibliography of the Honorable Robert Boyle, Fellow of the Royal Society, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1961).
  4. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-1950), 2, 1026-31.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Malcolm Oster, "Biography, Culture, and Science: The Formative Years of Robert Boyle," History of Science, 31 (1993), 177- 226.
  2. Michael Hunter, ed. Robert Boyle Reconsidered, (Cambridge, 1994).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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1995 Al Van Helden
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