Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle was descended from a family who, in Saxon times, held

land in the county of Hereford, and whose name in the Doomsday Book is

written Biuvile. His father was Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, to whom

the fortunes of the family were largely due. Richard Boyle was born in

the city of Canterbury, October 3, 1566. He was educated at Bene't

College (now Corpus Christi College), Cambridge, and afterwards became

a member of the Middle Temple. Finding his means insufficient for the

prosecution of his legal studies, he determined to seek his fortune

abroad. In 1595 he married, at Limerick, one of the daughters of

William Apsley, who brought him land of the value of L500 per annum.

In his autobiography the Earl of Cork writes:--

When first I arrived at Dublin, in Ireland, the 23rd of June

1588, all my wealth then was twenty-seven pounds three shillings

in money, and two tokens which my mother had given me, viz. a

diamond ring, which I have ever since and still do wear, and a

bracelet of gold worth about ten pounds; a taffety doublet cut

with and upon taffety, a pair of black velvet breeches laced, a

new Milan fustian suit laced and cut upon taffety, two cloaks,

competent linen, and necessaries, with my rapier and dagger. And

since, the blessing of God, whose heavenly providence guided me

hither, hath enriched my weak estate, in beginning with such a

fortune, as I need not envy any of my neighbours, and added no

care or burthen of my conscience thereunto. And the 23rd of

June, 1632, I have served my God, Queen Elizabeth, King James,

and King Charles, full forty-four years, and so long after as it

shall please God to enable me.

Richard Boyle's property in Ireland increased so rapidly that he was

accused to Queen Elizabeth of receiving pay from some foreign power.

When about to visit England in order to clear himself of this charge,

the rebellion in Munster broke out; his lands were wasted, and his

income for the time destroyed. Reaching London, he returned to his old

chambers in the Middle Temple, until he entered the service of the

Earl of Essex, to whom the government of Ireland had been entrusted.

The charges against him were then resumed, and he was made a prisoner,

and kept in confinement until the Earl of Essex had gone over to

Ireland. At length he obtained a hearing before the queen, who fully

acquitted him of the charges, gave him her hand to kiss, and promised

to employ him in her own service; at the same time she dismissed Sir

Henry Wallop, who was Treasurer for Ireland, and prominent among

Boyle's accusers, from his office.

A few days afterwards, Richard Boyle was appointed by the queen Clerk

to the Council of Munster, and having purchased a ship of Sir Walter

Raleigh, he returned to Ireland with ammunition and provisions.

"Then, as Clerk of the Council, I attended the Lord President in all

his employments, and waited upon him at the siege of Kingsale, and was

employed by his Lordship to her Majesty, with the news of that happy

victory; in which employment I made a speedy expedition to the court;

for I left my Lord President at Shannon Castle, near Corke, on the

Monday morning, about two of the clock, and the next day, being

Tuesday, I delivered my packet, and supped with Sir Robert Cecil,

being then principal Secretary of State, at his house in the Strand;

who, after supper, held me in discourse till two of the clock in the

morning; and by seven that morning called upon me to attend him to the

court, where he presented me to her Majesty in her bed-chamber, who

remembered me, calling me by my name, and giving me her hand to kiss,

telling me that she was glad that I was the happy man to bring the

first news of that glorious victory ... and so I was dismissed with

grace and favour."

In reading of this journey from Cork to London, it is almost necessary

to be reminded that it took place two hundred and fifty years before

the introduction of steam-boats and railways. At the close of the

rebellion, Richard Boyle purchased from Sir Walter Raleigh all his

lands in Munster; and on July 25, 1603, he married his second wife,

Catharine, the only daughter of Sir Geoffrey Fenton, principal

Secretary of State, and Privy Councillor in Ireland, "with whom I

never demanded any marriage portion, neither promise of any, it not

being in my consideration; yet her father, after my marriage, gave me

one thousand pounds in gold with her. But that gift of his daughter

unto me I must ever thankfully acknowledge as the crown of all my

blessings; for she was a most religious, virtuous, loving, and

obedient wife unto me all the days of her life." He was knighted by

the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir George Carew, on his wedding-day; was

sworn Privy Councillor of State of the Kingdom of Ireland in 1612;

created Lord Boyle, Baron of Youghall, September 29, 1616; Lord

Viscount of Dungarvon and Earl of Cork, October 26, 1620; one of the

Lords Justices of Ireland, with a salary of L1200 per annum, in 1629;

and Lord High Treasurer of Ireland, November 9, 1631.

Robert Boyle, the seventh son of the Earl of Cork, was born January

25, 1627. His mother died February 16, 1630. The earl lived in

prosperity in Ireland till the breaking out of the rebellion in 1641,

and died at Youghall in September, 1643. It is said that when Cromwell

saw the vast improvements which the earl had made on his estate in

Munster, he declared that "if there had been an Earl of Cork in every

province, it would have been impossible for the Irish to have raised a


At a very early age Robert was sent by his father to a country nurse,

"who, by early inuring him, by slow degrees, to a coarse but cleanly

diet, and to the usual passion of the air, gave him so vigorous a

complexion that both hardships were made easy to him by custom, and

the delights of conveniences and ease were endeared to him by their

rarity." Making the acquaintance of some children who stuttered in

their speech, he, by imitation, acquired the same habit, "so

contagious and catching are men's faults, and so dangerous is the

familiar commerce of those condemnable customs, that, being imitated

but in jest, come to be learned and acquired in earnest." Before going

to school he studied French and Latin, and showed considerable

aptitude for scholarship. He was then sent to Eton, where his master

took much notice of him, and "would sometimes give him unasked

play-days, and oft bestow upon him such balls and tops and other

implements of idleness as he had taken away from others that had

unduly used them."

While at school, in the early morning, a part of the wall of the

bedroom, with the bed, chairs, books, and furniture of the room above,

fell on him and his brother. "His brother had his band torn about his

neck, and his coat upon his back, and his chair crushed and broken

under him; but by a lusty youth, then accidentally in the room, was

snatched from out the ruins, by which [Robert] had, in all

probability, been immediately oppressed, had not his bed been

curtained by a watchful Providence, which kept all heavy things from

falling on it; but the dust of the crumbled rubbish raised was so

thick that he might there have been stifled had not he remembered to

wrap his head in the sheet, which served him as a strainer, through

which none but the purer air could find a passage." At Eton he spent

nearly four years, "in the last of which he forgot much of that Latin

he had got, for he was so addicted to more solid parts of knowledge

that he hated the study of bare words naturally, as something that

relished too much of pedantry to consort with his disposition and

designs." On leaving Eton he joined his father at Stalbridge, in

Dorsetshire, and was sent to reside with "Mr. W. Douch, then parson of

that place," who took the supervision of his studies. Here he renewed

his acquaintance with Latin, and devoted some attention to English

verse, spending some of his idle hours in composing verses, "most of

which, the day he came of age, he sacrificed to Vulcan, with a design

to make the rest perish by the same fate." A little later he returned

to his father's house in Stalbridge, and was placed under the tutelage

of a French gentleman, who had been tutor to two of his brothers.

In October, 1638, Robert Boyle and his brother were sent into France.

After a short stay at Lyons, they reached Geneva, where Robert

remained with his tutor for about a year and three quarters. During

his residence here an incident occurred which he regarded as the most

important event of his life, and which we therefore give in his own


"To frame a right apprehension of this, you must understand that,

though his inclinations were ever virtuous, and his life free from

scandal and inoffensive, yet had the piety he was master of already so

diverted him from aspiring unto more, that Christ, who long had lain

asleep in his conscience (as He once did in the ship), must now, as

then, be waked by a storm. For at a time which (being the very heat of

summer) promised nothing less, about the dead of night, that adds most

terror to such accidents, [he] was suddenly waked in a fright with

such loud claps of thunder (which are oftentimes very terrible in

those hot climes and seasons), that he thought the earth would owe an

ague to the air, and every clap was both preceded and attended with

flashes of lightning, so frequent and so dazzling that [he] began to

imagine them the sallies of that fire that must consume the world. The

long continuance of that dismal tempest, where the winds were so loud

as almost drowned the noise of the very thunder, and the showers so

hideous as almost quenched the lightning ere it could reach his eyes,

confirmed him in his apprehensions of the day of judgment's being at

hand. Whereupon 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 were that night

disappointed, all his further additions to his life should be more

religiously and watchfully employed. The morning came, and a serene,

cloudless sky returned, when he ratified his determinations so

solemnly, that from that day he dated his conversion, renewing, now he

was past danger, the vow he had made whilst he believed himself to be

in it; and though his fear was (and he blushed it was so) the occasion

of his resolution of amendment, yet at least he might not owe his more

deliberate consecration of himself to piety to any less noble motive

than that of its own excellence."

After leaving Geneva, he crossed the Alps and travelled through

Northern Italy. Here he spent much time in learning Italian; "the rest

of his spare hours he spent in reading the modern history in Italian,

and the new paradoxes of the great stargazer Galileo, whose ingenious

books, perhaps because they could not be so otherwise, were confuted

by a decree from Rome; his highness the Pope, it seems, presuming, and

that justly, that the infallibility of his chair extended equally to

determine points in philosophy as in religion, and loth to have the

stability of that earth questioned in which he had established his


Having visited Rome, he at length returned to France, and was detained

at Marseilles, awaiting a remittance from the earl to enable him to

continue his travels. Through some miscarriage, the money which the

earl sent did not arrive, and Robert and his brother had to depend on

the credit of the tutor to procure the means to enable them to return

home. They reached England in the summer of 1644, "where we found

things in such confusion that, although the manor of Stalbridge were,

by my father's decease, descended unto me, yet it was near four months

before I could get thither." On reaching London, Robert Boyle resided

for some time with his sister, Lady Ranelagh, and was thus prevented

from entering the Royalist Army. Later on he returned for a short time

to France; visited Cambridge in December, 1645, and then took up his

residence at Stalbridge till May, 1650, where he commenced the study

of chemistry and natural philosophy.

It was in October, 1646, that Boyle first made mention of the

"invisible college," which afterwards developed into the Royal

Society. Writing to a Fellow of Magdalen College, Cambridge, in

February, 1647, he says, "The corner-stones of the invisible, or, as

they term themselves, the philosophical college, do now and then

honour me with their company." It appears that a desire to escape from

the troubles of the times had induced several persons to take refuge

in philosophical pursuits, and, meeting together to discuss the

subjects of their study, they formed the "invisible college." Boyle

says, "I will conclude their praises with the recital of their

chiefest fault, which is very incident to almost all good things, and

that is, that there is not enough of them." Dr. Wallis, one of the

first members of the society, states that Mr. Theodore Hooke, a German

of the Palatinate, then resident in London, "gave the first occasion

and first suggested those meetings and many others. These meetings we

held sometimes at Dr. Goddard's lodging, in Wood Street (or some

convenient place near), on occasion of his keeping an operator in his

house, for grinding glasses for telescopes and microscopes, and

sometimes at a convenient place in Cheapside; sometimes at Gresham

College, or some place near adjoining. Our business was (precluding

theology and State affairs) to discourse and consider of philosophical

inquiries, and such as related thereunto; as physic, anatomy,

geometry, astronomy, navigation, statics, magnetics, chemics,

mechanics, and natural experiments, with the state of these studies as

then cultivated at home and abroad. About the year 1648-49 some of us

being removed to Oxford, first Dr. Wilkins, then I, and soon after Dr.

Goddard, our company divided. Those in London continued to meet there

as before, and we with them when we had occasion to be there. And

those of us at Oxford, with Dr. Ward, since Bishop of Salisbury, Dr.

Ralph Bathurst, now President of Trinity College in Oxford, Dr. Petty,

since Sir William Petty, Dr. Willis, then an eminent physician in

Oxford, and divers others, continued such meetings in Oxford, and

brought those studies into fashion there; meeting first at Dr.

Petty's lodgings, in an apothecary's house, because of the convenience

of inspecting drugs and the like, as there was occasion; and after his

remove to Ireland (though not so constantly) at the lodgings of Dr.

Wilkins, then Warden of Wadham College; and after his removal to

Trinity College in Cambridge, at the lodgings of the Honourable Mr.

Robert Boyle, then resident for divers years in Oxford. These meetings

in London continued, and after the king's return, in 1660, were

increased with the accession of divers worthy and honourable persons,

and were afterwards incorporated by the name of the Royal Society,

and so continue to this day."

Boyle was only about twenty years of age when he wrote his "Free

Discourse against Swearing;" his "Seraphic Love; or, Some Motives and

Incentives to the Love of God;" and his "Essay on Mistaken Modesty."

"Seraphic Love" was the last of a series of treatises on love, but the

only one of the series that he published, as he considered the others

too trifling to be published alone or in conjunction with it. In a

letter to Lady Ranelagh, he refers to his laboratory as "a kind of

Elysium," and there were few things which gave him so much pleasure as

his furnaces and philosophical experiments. In 1652 he visited

Ireland, returning in the following summer. In the autumn he was again

obliged to visit Ireland, and remained there till the summer of 1654,

though residence in that country was far from agreeable to him. He

styled it "a barbarous country, where chemical spirits were so

misunderstood, and chemical instruments so unprocurable, that it was

hard to have any hermetic thoughts in it." On his return he settled in

Oxford, and there his lodgings soon became the centre of the

scientific life of the university. Boyle and his friends may be

regarded as the pioneers of experimental philosophy in this country.

To Boyle the methods of Aristotle appeared little more than

discussions on words; for a long time he refused to study the

philosophy of Descartes, lest he should be turned aside from reasoning

based strictly on the results of experiment. The method pursued by

these philosophers had been fully discussed by Lord Bacon, but at best

his experimental methods, though most complete and systematic, existed

only upon paper, and it was reserved for Boyle and his friends to put

the Baconian philosophy into actual practice.

It was during his residence at Oxford that he invented the air-pump,

which was afterwards improved for him by Hooke, and with which he

conducted most of those experiments on the "spring" and weight of the

air, which led up to the investigations that have rendered his name

inseparably connected with "the gaseous laws." The experiments of

Galileo and of Torricelli had shown that the pressure of the air was

capable of supporting a column of water about thirty-four feet in

height, or a column of mercury nearly thirty inches high. The younger

Pascal, at the request of Torricelli, had carried a barometer to the

summit of the Puy de Dome, and demonstrated that the height of the

column of mercury supported by the air diminishes as the altitude is

increased. Otto von Guericke had constructed the Magdeburg

hemispheres, and shown that, when exhausted, they could not be

separated by sixteen horses, eight pulling one way and eight the

other. He was aware that the same traction could have been produced by

eight horses if one of the hemispheres had been attached to a fixed

obstacle; but, with the instincts of a popular lecturer, he considered

that the spectacle would thus be rendered less striking, and it was

prepared for the king's entertainment. Boyle wished for an air-pump

with an aperture in the receiver sufficiently large for the

introduction of various objects, and an arrangement for exhausting it

without filling the receiver with water or otherwise interfering with

the objects placed therein. His apparatus consisted of a large glass

globe capable of containing about three gallons or thereabouts,

terminating in an open tube below, and with an aperture of about four

inches diameter at the top. Around this aperture was cemented a turned

brass ring, the inner surface being conical, and into this conical

seat was fitted a brass plate with a thick rim, but drilled with a

small hole in the centre. To this hole, which was also conical, was

fitted a brass stopper, which could be turned round when the receiver

was exhausted. By attaching a string to this stopper, which was so

long as to enter the receiver to the depth of two or three inches, and

turning the stopper in its seat, the string could be wound up, and

thus objects could be moved within the receiver. The tube at the

bottom of the receiver communicated with a stop-cock, and this with

the upper end of the pumpbarrel, which was inverted, so that this

stop-cock, which was at the top of the barrel, took the place of the

foot-valve. The piston was solid, made of wood, and surrounded with

sole leather, which was kept well greased. There being no valve in the

piston, it was necessary to place an exhaust-valve in the upper end of

the cylinder. This consisted of a small brass plug closing a conical

hole so that it could be removed at pleasure. The construction of the

cylinder was, therefore, similar to that of an ordinary force-pump,

except that the valves had to be moved by hand (as in the early forms

of the steam-engine). The piston was raised and depressed by means of

a rack and pinion. The pumps could be used either for exhausting the

receiver or for forcing air into it, according to the order in which

the "valves" were opened. If the stop-cock communicating with the

receiver were open while the piston was being drawn down, and the

brass plug removed so as to open the exhaust-valve when the piston was

being forced up, the receiver would gradually be exhausted. If the

brass plug were removed during the descent of the piston, and the

stop-cock opened during its ascent, air would be forced into the

receiver. In the latter case it was necessary to take special

precautions to prevent the brass plate at the top of the receiver

being raised from its seat. All joints were made air-tight with

"diachylon," and when, through the bursting of a glass bulb within it,

the receiver became cracked, the crack was rendered air-tight by the

same means. Other receivers of smaller capacity were also provided, on

account of the greater readiness with which they could be exhausted.

With this apparatus Boyle carried out a long series of experiments. He

could reduce the pressure in the large receiver to somewhat less than

that corresponding to an inch of mercury, or about a foot of water.

Squeezing a bladder so as to expel nearly all the air, tying the neck,

and then introducing it into the receiver, he found, on working the

pump, that the bladder swelled so that at length it became completely

distended. In order to account for this great expansibility, Boyle

pictured the constitution of the air in the following way. He supposed

the air to consist of separate particles, each resembling a spiral

spring, which became tightly wound when exposed to great pressure, but

which expanded so as to occupy a larger circle when the pressure was

diminished. Each of these little spirals he supposed to rotate about a

diameter so as to exclude every other body from the sphere in which it

moved. Increasing the length of the diameter tenfold would increase

the volume of one of these spheres, and therefore the volume of the

gas, a thousandfold. Possibly this was only intended as a mental

illustration, exhibiting a mechanism by which very great expansion

might conceivably be produced, and scarcely pretending to be

considered a theory of the constitution of the air. Boyle's first

idea seems to have been derived from a lock of wool in which the

elasticity of each fibre caused the lock to expand after it had been

compressed in the hand. In another passage he speaks of the air as

consisting of a number of bodies capable of striking against a surface

exposed to them. He demonstrated the weight of the air by placing a

delicate balance within the receiver, suspending from one arm a

bladder half filled with water, and balancing it with brass weights.

On exhausting the air, the bladder preponderated, and, by repeating

the experiment with additional weights on the other arm until a

balance was effected in the exhausted receiver, he determined the

amount of the preponderance. In another experiment he compressed air

in a bladder by tying a pack-thread round it, balanced it from one arm

of his balance in the open air; then, pricking the bladder so as to

relieve the pressure, he found that with the escape of the compressed

air the weight diminished.

One of the most important of his experiments with the air-pump was the

following. He placed within the receiver the cistern of a mercurial

barometer, the tube of which was made to pass through the central hole

in the brass plate, from which the stopper had been removed. The space

around the tube was filled up with cement, and the receiver

exhausted. At each stroke of the pump the mercury in the barometer

tube descended, but through successively diminishing distances, until

at length it stood only an inch above the mercury in the cistern. The

experiment was then repeated with a tube four feet long and filled

with water. This constituted the nineteenth experiment referred to

later on. A great many strokes of the pump had to be made before the

water began to descend. At length it fell till the surface in the tube

stood only about a foot above that in the tank. Placing vessels of

ordinary spring-water and of distilled rain-water in the receiver, he

found that, after the exhaustion had reached a certain stage, bubbles

of gas were copiously evolved from the spring-water, but not from the

distilled water. On another occasion he caused warm water to boil by a

few strokes of the pump; and, continuing the exhaustion, the water was

made to boil at intervals until it became only lukewarm. The

experiment was repeated with several volatile liquids. He also noticed

the cloud formed in the receiver when the air was allowed rapidly to

expand; but the mechanical theory of heat had not then made sufficient

progress to enable him to account for the condensation by the loss of

heat due to the work done by the expanding air. The very minute

accuracy of his observations is conspicuous in the descriptions of

most of his experiments. That the air is the usual medium for the

conveyance of sound was shown by suspending a watch by a linen thread

within the receiver. On exhausting the air, the ticking of the watch

ceased to be heard. A pretty experiment consisted in placing a bottle

of a certain fuming liquid within the receiver; on exhausting the air,

the fumes fell over the neck of the bottle and poured over the stand

on which it was placed like a stream of water. Another experiment, the

thirty-second, is worthy of mention on account of the use to which it

was afterwards applied in the controversy respecting the cause of

suction. The receiver, having been exhausted, was removed from the

cylinder, the stop-cock being turned off, and a small brass valve, to

which a scale-pan was attached, was placed just under the aperture of

the tube below the stop-cock. On turning the latter, the stream of air

raised the valve, closing the aperture, and the atmospheric pressure

supported it until a considerable weight had been placed in the

scale-pan. Because the receiver could not be exhausted so thoroughly

as the pump-cylinder, Boyle attempted to measure the pressure of the

air by determining what weight could be supported by the piston. He

found first that a weight of twenty-eight pounds suspended directly

from the piston was sufficient to overcome friction when air was

admitted above the piston. When the access of air to the top of the

piston was prevented, more than one hundred pounds additional weight

was required to draw down the piston. The diameter of the cylinder was

about three inches.

Boyle's style of reasoning is well illustrated by the following from

his paper on "The Spring of the Air:"--

"In the next place, these experiments may teach us what to judge of

the vulgar axiom received for so many ages as an undoubted truth in

the peripatetick schools, that Nature abhors and flieth a vacuum, and

that to such a degree that no human power (to go no higher) is able to

make one in the universe; wherein heaven and earth would change

places, and all its other bodies rather act contrary to their own

nature than suffer it.... It will not easily, then, be intelligibly

made out how hatred or aversation, which is a passion of the soul, can

either for a vacuum or any other object be supposed to be in water, or

such like inanimate body, which cannot be presumed to know when a

vacuum would ensue, if they did not bestir themselves to prevent it;

nor to be so generous as to act contrary to what is most conducive to

their own particular preservation for the public good of the universe.

As much, then, of intelligible and probable truth as is contained in

this metaphorical expression seems to amount but to this--that by the

wise Author of nature (who is justly said to have made all things in

number, weight, and measure) the universe, and the parts of it, are so

contrived that it is hard to make a vacuum in it, as if they

studiously conspired to prevent it. And how far this itself may be

granted deserves to be further considered.

"For, in the next place, our experiments seem to teach that the

supposed aversation of Nature to a vacuum is but accidental, or in

consequence, partly of the weight and fluidity, or, at least,

fluxility of the bodies here below; and partly, and perhaps

principally, of the air, whose restless endeavour to expand itself

every way makes it either rush in itself or compel the interposed

bodies into all spaces where it finds no greater resistance than it

can surmount. And that in those motions which are made ob fugam

vacui (as the common phrase is), bodies act without such generosity

and consideration as is wont to be ascribed to them, is apparent

enough in our thirty-second experiment, where the torrent of air, that

seemed to strive to get into the emptied receiver, did plainly prevent

its own design, by so impelling the valve as to make it shut the only

orifice the air was to get [in] at. And if afterwards either Nature or

the internal air had a design the external air should be attracted,

they seemed to prosecute it very unwisely by continuing to suck the

valve so strongly, when they found that by that suction the valve

itself could not be drawn in; whereas, by forbearing to suck, the

valve would, by its own weight, have fallen down and suffered the

excluded air to return freely, and to fill again the exhausted


"And as for the care of the public good of the universe ascribed to

dead and stupid bodies, we shall only demand why, in our nineteenth

experiment, upon the exsuction of the ambient air, the water deserted

the upper half of the glass tube, and did not ascend to fill it up

till the external air was let in upon it. Whereas, by its easy and

sudden rejoining that upper part of the tube, it appeared both that

there was then much space devoid of air, and that the water might,

with small or no resistance, have ascended into it, if it could have

done so without the impulsion of the readmitted air; which, it seems,

was necessary to mind the water of its formerly neglected duty to the


Boyle then goes on to explain the phenomena correctly by the pressure

of the air. Elsewhere he accounts for the diminished pressure on the

top of a mountain by the diminished weight of the superincumbent

column of air.

The treatise on "The Spring of the Air" met with much opposition, and

Boyle considered it necessary to defend his doctrine against the

objections of Franciscus Linus and Hobbes. In this defence he

described the experiment in connection with which he is most generally

remembered. Linus had admitted that the air might possess a certain

small amount of elasticity, but maintained that the force with which

mercury rose in a barometer tube was due mainly to a totally different

action, as though a string were pulling upon it from above. This was

his funicular hypothesis. Boyle undertook to show that the pressure of

the air might be made to support a much higher column of mercury than

that of the barometer. To this end he took a glass tube several feet

in length, and bent so as to form two vertical legs connected below.

The shorter leg was little more than a foot long, and hermetically

closed at the top. The longer leg was nearly eight feet in length, and

open at the top. The tube was suspended by strings upon the staircase,

the bend at the bottom pressing lightly against the bottom of a box

placed to receive the mercury employed in case of accident. Each leg

of the tube was provided with a paper scale. Mercury was poured in at

the open end, the tube being tilted so as to allow some of the air to

escape from the shorter limb until the mercury stood at the same level

in both legs when the tube was vertical. The length of the closed tube

occupied by the air was then just twelve inches. The height of the

barometer was about 29-1/8 inches. Mercury was gently poured into the

open limb by one operator, while another watched its height in the

closed limb. The results of the experiments are given in the table on

the opposite page.

In this table the third column gives the result of adding to the

second column the height of the barometer, which expresses in inches

of mercury the pressure of the air on the free surface of the mercury

in the longer limb. The fourth column gives the total pressure, in

inches of mercury, on the hypothesis that the pressure of the air

varies inversely as the volume. The agreement between the third and

fourth columns is very close, considering the roughness of the

experiment and that no trouble appears to have been taken to

calibrate the shorter limb of the tube, and justified Boyle in

concluding that the hypothesis referred to expresses the relation

between the volume and pressure of a given mass of air.


Length of Height of Total pressure Total pressure

closed tubemercury in openon air in inchesaccording to

occupied tube above thatof mercury. Boyle's law.

by air. in closed tube.


12 0 29-2/16 29-2/16

11-1/2 1-7/16 30-9/16 30-6/16

11 2-13/16 31-15/16 31-12/16

10-1/2 4-6/16 33-8/16 33-1/7

10 6-3/16 35-5/16 35

9-1/2 7-14/16 37 36-15/19

9 10-1/16 39-3/16 38-7/8

8-1/2 12-8/16 41-10/16 41-2/17

8 15-1/16 44-3/16 43-11/16

7-1/2 17-15/16 47-1/16 46-3/5

7 21-3/16 50-5/16 50

6-1/2 25-3/16 54-5/16 53-10/13

6 29-11/16 58-13/16 58-2/8

5-3/4 32-3/16 61-5/16 60-13/23

5-1/2 34-15/16 64-1/16 63-6/11

5-1/4 37-15/16 67-1/16 66-4/7

5 41-9/16 70-11/16 70

4-3/4 45 74-2/16 73-11/19

4-1/2 48-12/16 77-14/16 77-2/3

4-1/4 53-11/16 82-13/16 82-4/17

4 58-2/16 87-14/16 87-1/8

3-3/4 63-15/16 93-1/16 93-1/5

3-1/2 71-5/16 100-7/16 99-6/7

3-1/4 78-11/16 107-13/16 107-7/13

3 88-7/16 117-9/16 116-4/8


To extend the investigation so as to include expansion below

atmospheric pressure, a different apparatus was employed. It consisted

of a glass tube about six feet in length, closed at the lower end and

filled with mercury. Into this bath of mercury was plunged a length of

quill tube, and the upper end was sealed with wax. When the wax and

air in the tube had cooled, a hot pin was passed through the wax,

making a small orifice by which the amount of air in the tube was

adjusted so as to occupy exactly one inch of its length as measured by

a paper scale attached thereto, after again sealing the wax. The quill

tube was then raised, and the height of the surface of the mercury in

the tube above that in the bath noticed, together with the length of

the tube occupied by the air. The difference between the height of the

barometer and the height of the mercury in the tube above that in the

bath gave the pressure on the imprisoned air in inches of mercury. The

result showed that the volume varied very nearly in the inverse ratio

of the pressure. A certain amount of air, however, clung to the sides

of the quill tube when immersed in the mercury, and no care was taken

to remove it by boiling the mercury or otherwise; in consequence of

this, as the mercury descended, this air escaped and joined the rest

of the air in the tube. This made the pressure rather greater than it

should have been towards the end of the experiment, and when the tube

was again pressed down into the bath it was found that, when the

surfaces of the mercury within and without the tube were at the same

level, the air occupied nearly 1-1/8 inch instead of one inch of the

tube. These experiments first established the truth of the great law

known as "Boyle's law," which states that the volume of a given mass

of a perfect gas varies inversely as the pressure to which it is


Another experiment, to show that the pressure of the air was the cause

of suction, Boyle succeeded in carrying out at a later date. Two discs

of marble were carefully polished, so that when a little spirit of

turpentine was placed between them the lower disc, with a pound weight

suspended from it, was supported by the upper one. The apparatus was

introduced into the air-pump, and a considerable amount of shaking

proved insufficient to separate the discs. After sixteen strokes of

the pump, on opening the communication between the receiver and

cylinder, when no mechanical vibration occurred, the discs separated.

Upon the Restoration in 1660, the Earl of Clarendon, who was Lord

Chancellor of England, endeavoured to persuade Boyle to enter holy

orders, urging the interest of the Church as the chief motive for the

proceeding. This made some impression upon Boyle, but he declined for

two reasons--first, because he thought that he would have a greater

influence for good if he had no share in the patrimony of the Church;

and next, because he had never felt "an inward motion to it by the

Holy Ghost."

In 1649 an association was incorporated by Parliament, to be called

"the President and Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New

England," whose object should be "to receive and dispose of moneys in

such manner as shall best and principally conduce to the preaching and

propagating the gospel among the natives, and for the maintenance of

schools and nurseries of learning for the education of the children of

the natives; for which purpose a general collection was appointed to

be made in and through all the counties, cities, towns, and parishes

of England and Wales, for a charitable contribution, to be as the

foundation of so pious and great an undertaking." The society was

revived by special charter in 1661, and Boyle was appointed president,

an office he continued to hold until shortly before his death. The

society afterwards enlarged its sphere of operations, and became the

Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

In the same year (1661) Boyle published "Some Considerations on the

Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy," etc., and in 1663 an

extremely interesting paper on "Experiments and Considerations

touching Colours." In the course of this paper he describes some very

beautiful experiments with a tincture of Lignum nephriticum, wherein

the dichroism of the extract is made apparent. Boyle found that by

transmitted light it appeared of a bright golden colour, but when

viewed from the side from which it was illuminated the light emitted

was sky blue, and in some cases bright green. By arranging experiments

so that some parts of the liquid were seen by the transmitted light

and some by the scattered light, very beautiful effects were produced.

Boyle endeavoured to learn something of the nature of colours by

projecting spectra on differently coloured papers, and observing the

appearance of the papers when illuminated by the several spectral

rays. He also passed sunlight, concentrated by a lens, through plates

of differently coloured glass superposed, allowing the light to fall

on a white paper screen, and observing the tint of the light which

passed through each combination. But the most interesting of these

experiments was the actual mixture of light of different colours by

forming two spectra, one by means of a fixed prism, the other by a

prism held in the hand, and superposing the latter on the former so

that different colours were made to coincide. This experiment was

repeated in a modified form, nearly two hundred years later, by

Helmholtz, who found that the mixture of blue and yellow lights

produced pink. Unfortunately, Boyle's spectra were far from pure, for,

the source of light being of considerable dimensions, the different

colours overlapped one another, as in Newton's experiments, and in

consequence some of his conclusions were inaccurate. Thus blue paper

in the yellow part of the spectrum appeared to Boyle green instead of

black, but this was due to the admixture of green light with the

yellow. He concluded that bodies appear black because they damp the

light so as to reflect very little to the eye, but that the surfaces

of white bodies consist of innumerable little facets which reflect the

light in all directions. In the same year he published some

"Observations on a Diamond, which shines in the Dark;" and an

extensive treatise on "Some Considerations touching the Style of the

Holy Scriptures." Next year appeared several papers from his pen, the

most important being "Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects,"

the wide scope of which may be gathered from the title. His "New

Experiments and Observations touching Cold" were printed in 1665. In

this paper he discussed the cause of the force exerted by water in

freezing, methods of measuring degrees of cold, the action of

freezing-mixtures, and many other questions. He contended that cold

was probably only privative, and not a positive existence.

Lord Bacon had asserted that the "essential self" of heat was probably

motion and nothing more, and had adduced several experiments and

observations in support of this opinion. In his paper on the

mechanical origin of heat and cold, Boyle maintained that heat was

motion, but motion of the very small particles of bodies, very

intense, and taking place in all directions; and that heat could be

produced by any means whatever by which the particles of bodies could

be agitated. On one occasion he caused two pieces of brass, one convex

and the other concave, to be pressed against each other by a spring,

and then rubbed together in a vacuum by a rotary motion communicated

by a shaft which passed air-tight through the hole in the cover of the

receiver, a little emery being inserted between them. In the second

experiment the brasses became so hot that he "could not endure to hold

[his] hand on either of them." This experiment was intended, like the

rubbing of the blocks of ice in vacuo by Davy, to meet the objection

that the heat developed by friction was due to the action of the air.

The following extract from a paper intended to show that the sense of

touch cannot be relied upon for the estimation of temperature, shows

that Boyle possessed a very clear insight into the question:--"The

account upon which we judge a body to be cold seems to be that we feel

its particles less vehemently agitated than those of our fingers or

other parts of the organ of touching; and, consequently, if the temper

of that organ be changed, the object will appear more or less cold to

us, though itself continue of one and the same temperature." To

determine the expansion of water in freezing, he filled the bulb and

part of the stem of a "bulb tube," or, as it was then generally

called, "a philosophical egg," with water, and applying a

freezing-mixture, at first to the bottom of the bulb, he succeeded in

freezing the water without injury to the glass, and found that 82

volumes of water expanded to 91-1/8 volumes of ice--an expansion of

about 11-1/8 per cent. Probably air-bubbles caused the ice to appear

to have a greater volume than it really possessed, the true expansion

being about nine per cent. of the volume of the water at 4 deg.C. The

expansion of water in freezing he employed in order to compress air to

a greater extent than he had been able otherwise to compress it.

Having nearly filled a tube with water, but left a little air above,

and then having sealed the top of the tube, he froze the water from

the bottom upwards, so that in expanding it compressed the air to

one-tenth of its former volume.

Magnetism and electricity came in for some share of Boyle's attention.

He carried out a number of experiments on magnetic induction, and

found that lodestones, as well as pieces of iron, when heated and

allowed to cool, became magnetized by the induction of the earth. His

later experiments with exhausted receivers were not made with his

first pump, but with a two-barrelled pump, in which the pistons were

connected by a cord passing over a large fixed pulley, so that, when

the receiver was nearly exhausted, the pressure of the air on the

descending piston during the greater part of the stroke nearly

balanced that on the ascending piston. In this respect the pump

differed only from Hawksbee's in having the pulley and cord instead of

the pinion and two racks. It also resembled Hawksbee's pump in having

self-closing valves in the pistons and at the bottom of the cylinders,

which, in this pump, had their open ends at the top. The pistons were

alternately raised and lowered by the feet of the operator, which were

placed in stirrups, of which one was fixed on each piston. The lower

portions of the barrels were filled with water, through which the air

bubbled, and this, occupying the clearance, enabled a much higher

degree of exhaustion to be produced than could be obtained without its


In 1665 Boyle was nominated Provost of Eton, but declined to accept

the appointment. His "Hydrostatical Paradoxes," published about this

time, contain all the ordinary theorems respecting the pressure of

fluids under the action of gravity demonstrated experimentally.

In 1677 Boyle printed, at his own expense, five hundred copies of the

four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles in the Malayan tongue. This

was but one of his many contributions towards similar objects.

On November 30, 1680, the Royal Society chose Boyle for President. He,

however, declined to accept the appointment, because he had

conscientious objections to taking the oath required of the President

by the charter of the Society.

It appears that very many of Boyle's manuscripts, which were written

in bound books, were taken away, and others mutilated by "corrosive

liquors." In May, 1688, he made this known to his friends, but, though

these losses put him on his guard, he complained afterwards that all

his care and circumspection had not prevented the loss of "six

centuries of matters of fact in one parcel," besides many other

smaller papers. His works, however, which have been published are so

numerous that it would take several pages for the bare enumeration of

their titles, many of them being devoted to medical subjects. The

edition published in London in 1743 comprises nearly three thousand

pages of folio. Boyle always suffered from weak eyes, and in

consequence he declined to revise his proofs. In the advertisement to

the original edition of his works the publisher mentioned this, and at

the same time pleaded his own business engagements as an excuse for

not revising the proofs himself! It was partly on account of the

injury to his manuscripts, and partly through failing health, that in

1689 he set apart two days in the week, during which he declined to

receive visitors, that he might devote himself to his work, and

especially to the reparation of the injured writings. About this time

he succeeded in procuring the repeal of an Act passed in the fifth

year of Henry IV. to the effect "that none from thenceforth should use

to multiply gold or silver, or use the craft of multiplication; and if

any the same do, they should incur the pain of felony." By this repeal

it was made legal to extract gold and silver from ores, or from their

mixtures with other metals, in this country provided that the gold and

silver so procured should be put to no other use than "the increase of

moneys." It is curious that Boyle seems always to have believed in the

possibility of transmuting other metals into gold.

His sister, Lady Ranelagh, died on December 23, 1691, and Boyle

survived her but a few days, for he died on December 30, and his body

was interred near his sister's grave in the chancel of St.

Martin's-in-the-Fields. Dr. Shaw, in his preface to Boyle's works,

writes, "The men of wit and learning have, in all ages, busied

themselves in explaining nature by words; but it is Mr. Boyle alone

who has wholly laid himself out in showing philosophy in action. The

single point he perpetually keeps in view is to render his reader, not

a talkative or a speculative, but an actual and practical philosopher.

Himself sets the example; he made all the experiments he possibly

could upon natural bodies, and communicated them with all desirable

candour and fidelity." The second part of his treatise on "The

Christian Virtuoso," Boyle concluded with a number of aphorisms, of

which the following well represent his views respecting science:--

"I think it becomes Christian philosophers rather to try whether they

can investigate the final causes of things than, without trial, to

take it for granted that they are undiscoverable."

"The book of Nature is a fine and large piece of tapestry rolled up,

which we are not able to see all at once, but must be content to wait

for the discovery of its beauty and symmetry, little by little, as it

gradually comes to be more unfolded or displayed."

Richard Wagner Robert Bruce facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail