Robert Boyle

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Robert Boyle (1627-1692)

Robert Boyle (born January 25, 1626 July / February 4,  1627 greg. In Lismore , Kingdom of Ireland ; † December 31, 1691 July / January 10,  1692 greg. In London ) was a naturalist working in England . Initially still a follower of alchemy , he became a co-founder of the modern natural sciences , especially physics and chemistry, based on detailed and detailed published experiments . He prepared the modern concept of element and discovered the law named after him relating to the relationship between pressure and volume of a gas .


Memorial plaque at Lismore Castle

Robert Boyle was the childhood 14. Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork ( Great Earl of Cork ) born (1566-1643) at Castle Lismore in County Waterford in southern Ireland. His mother Catherine, Richard Boyle's second wife, was the daughter of Secretary of State for Ireland Geoffrey Fenton and his family was among the richest in England. Robert Boyle was a brother of the Irish statesman Roger Boyle (1621–1679).

When he was eight he was sent to Eton College . At the age of twelve he went to Geneva and later to Florence . First he learned law , philosophy , mathematics , ancient languages, medicine and theology . His interest was in the natural sciences. During the revolution in England he briefly lost all funds. In Italy he studied the works of Galileo Galileo , who died near Florence in 1642. After the death of his father, he lived in his country estate in Stalbridge after 1644. There he wrote his book Ethics . As early as 1648 Boyle must have researched in chemical fields. For this he got in contact with Samuel Hartlib , Frederick Clod (* 1625, † after 1661), George Starkey and Kenelm Digby . He studied Johan Baptista van Helmont , Francis Bacon and René Descartes . In 1655 he settled in Oxford , in 1668 in London. Since Boyle was wealthy, he did not have to pursue a livelihood, but could devote himself entirely to scientific studies. He was unmarried and lived in the house of his sister Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh , in London, where he had a chemistry laboratory and welcomed many scientists.

Robert Boyle died in London on the night of December 31, 1691, a week after his sister's death. On his tombstone he is said to have been referred to as the "father of chemistry and uncle of the Earl of Cork ". He was buried on the site of the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields , which was later demolished for a new building, so that there is no trace of his burial place today. Isaac Newton was present at the funeral in January 1692 .


Boyle was tall and slim. He was not in a robust physical condition, but suffered from poor health . From the age of 62, he increasingly had to withdraw from public life. He lived from 1668 until his death with his sister, Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh, who was also involved in alchemy and pharmacy. She set up a laboratory for her brother in her home and they died a few days apart.

Boyle was a deeply religious Anglican ; he believed that science and belief are not mutually exclusive. He supported Protestant mission societies and financed the translation and printing of Bibles into the languages ​​of indigenous peoples in Asia and Africa.

Boyle donated the Boyle Lectures , which were supposed to show the compatibility of faith and science. The first Boyle Lecture was given in 1692 by Richard Bentley (A confutation of atheism). At first they were in St. Paul in London, later in St Mary-le-Bow. They took place more or less regularly annually until the beginning of the 20th century and were revived in 2004 by the Anglican Church.

The Boyle Mountains in Antarctica are named after him. The moon crater Boyle and the asteroid (11967) Boyle are named after him.

Research communities

Boyle was a member of the "Invisible College" group at Oxford, from which the Royal Society in London emerged. He was a founding member of the Royal Society in 1660, but declined to become President of the Society in 1680.

Most of his extensive written estate is owned by the Royal Society.

In March 2015, a first edition of The Skeptical Chymist was sold at auction in London for a record price of 492,000 euros.

Significant achievements

Boyle's "pneumatic engine"

Boyle and Mariotte's law and other gas properties

Galileo Galilei had already tried to measure the weight of the air. Otto von Guericke had already pumped air out of closed rooms. Riccioli suspected that the air column above the earth was about 75 km in height, and Blaise Pascal suspected that the air pressure on high towers and mountains should be lower than on earth.

Robert Boyle improved the air pump with Robert Hooke , and after its completion in 1659 he began a series of experiments on the properties of air . In 1660 Boyle made his important experiments to determine the air pressure, which he published in New Experiments, Physico-Mechanical, touching the Spring of the Air . Boyle filled a tube closed on one side with water and placed the tube with the opening facing down in a sealing liquid (water, mercury). A few air bubbles were present in the tube. Now he brought the arrangement under a bell jar and sucked the air out with an air pump. The filling level of the sealing liquid in the pipe fell because the air bubbles trapped in the pipe expanded. Boyle modified the experimental setup by using a U-shaped curved glass tube with legs of unequal length. He first put mercury in the pipe, then water. Due to the higher specific weight of mercury, the water column was pushed down. With this arrangement he was able to determine the specific gravity of mercury in relation to water, the factor was about 13.54.

Boyle then used the U-shaped tube to measure air pressure by sealing the short leg with wax and pouring mercury into the tube. With a calibrated paper strip glued on, he was able to determine the air pressure. With the air pump, he now reduced the air pressure and was able to show that air pressure and volume are always inversely proportional. Boyle published this result in 1662. In 1676, Edme Mariotte rediscovered the connection independently of Boyle. The relationship for ideal gases, named after both of them as Boyle-Mariotte's law , is:


It is a special case of the general gas law . In his experiments, Boyle also showed that sound can not propagate in a vacuum .

Boyle's experiments with the air pump led to a controversy with Thomas Hobbes that was possibly underpinned by religious and political factors. Boyle was interested in describing the effects, not the underlying causes. Hobbes claimed that the new knowledge must be causally and necessarily derived. The mere experimental induction of artificial effects does not lead - according to Hobbes - to true knowledge, since inductive inferences from the effect on the causes always remain hypothetical. Even Boyle's argument that his experiments could be repeated at any time could not eliminate Hobbes' skepticism about scientific instruments and the falsification of nature that they cause.

Case law

By creating a vacuum with the help of his pump, Robert Boyle was able to confirm the law established by Galileo Galilei in 1659 that all bodies fall to the ground at the same speed if the air resistance can be neglected (see free fall ).

Concept of element and analytical chemistry, natural philosophy

Title page of The Skeptical Chymist (1661).

In 1661 Boyle published his second work, The Skeptical Chymist ( The Skeptical Chemist ). Boyle mentions in his book that he does not speak the German language, so that in his work no German literature references on the theory of elements (e.g. by Joachim Jungius ) were given. In The Skeptical Chymist , Boyle underlined Francis Bacon's demand to apply thorough experimental methods ( empiricism ) in scientific areas . The observations must be checked and only then can theories be made.

Boyle made research into the properties of substances a scientific task. He saw chemistry as an independent science for the first time. He is also considered the founder of analytical chemistry, he coined the word analysis (resolution). He used indicators ( litmus , violet). He used these indicators to detect acids and bases in salts. Presumably he discovered acetone (by heating lead vinegar ) and methanol (by heating wood) during his distillations , since no elemental analysis had yet been developed, later researchers are considered to have discovered them. Boyle also used vacuum distillation for the first time .

In sections 3 and 6 of his book important questions about the concept of element are asked. Who broke gold into its elements? Who broke glass into its elements? Were these non-decomposable substances possibly elements?

If Boyle distilled wood, he received wood vinegar, an acid that was detectable at the time. However, if wood was distilled over corals, it receives a different non-acidic distillate (some methanol (wood spirit)). What reasons were there for the creation of different substances?

Boyle recognized by weighing that with metal calcification (strong heating of a metal with fire and air, metal oxides are formed) the weight of the salt-like substance increased compared to the pure metal. This realization spoke against the later emerged phlogiston theory .

For Boyle, chemistry was the science of the composition of substances, and he contributed to today's understanding of the chemical elements as the (chemically) indecomposable building blocks of matter. Although his concept of element seems modern, there are still alchemical ideas behind it (for example he believed in a materia prima), and his appropriation for modern ideas of the structure of matter should be viewed with caution. Since he recognized the difference between mixture and compound , he was able to make considerable progress in the determination of the constituents, a process that he called analysis (for the current term see under cation separation process , detection reaction ). He can therefore be considered a co-founder of analytical chemistry . He also applied this wet chemical analysis technique to ore samples.

In 1660 he was able to show that a mouse in a closed chamber with a candle burning dies at the same moment as the candle goes out. The oxygen , the lack of which was responsible, was only tracked down in the years after 1770.

Boyle and alchemy

The experimental Boyle rejected the doctrine of the four elements - earth, air, fire and water - going back to Empedocles , as did Paracelsus' teaching on the three principles (salt, sulfur, mercury). Boyle, also known as a natural philosopher , was one of the pioneers of modern chemistry , even though he himself still pursued the alchemical goal of transforming the elements. He also believed in metal transmutations with the help of the Philosopher's Stone and was very interested in news of alchemical "adepts" who claimed to be able to carry them out, and witnessed several such attempts. An excerpt from his Dialogue on Transmutation appeared anonymously in 1678 ( A degradation of gold by an anti-elixir ). In particular, Boyle worked with the alchemist George Starkey , from whom he received a substance he believed to be the philosophical mercury sought by alchemists . With this he carried out experiments for decades, which he reported in clauses in 1675 in the Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society . Boyle corresponded with alchemists all over Europe - this also made him one of the first to take up the discovery of phosphorus by Hennig Brand abroad . In 1689 he achieved the repeal of an old law that prohibited transmutation experiments for the extraction of precious metals (enacted for fear of counterfeiting). His relationship to alchemy was previously neglected, which - similar to Isaac Newton - was promoted by Boyle's tendency to secrecy on these issues, and is only later through studies by Lawrence M. Principe and William R. Newman in particular has been shed a new light.

After Boyle's death, a correspondence arose between Isaac Newton and John Locke about a mysterious legacy of Boyle's, which they referred to as "red earth". Boyle credited her with the ability to "transmute" metals. On January 21, 1692, Newton wrote to Locke asking for his "Two Notable Corruptions" to be returned. What this was about can be inferred from Locke's answer, which is said to have contained part of Boyle's “red earth” and its recipe for making it. Upon receipt, Newton wrote: " This receipt I take to be that thing for the sake of which Mr. B. produced the repeal of the Act of Parliament against Multipliers " (Newton was referring here to a law of King Henry IV which the Transmutation of metals into gold or silver was prohibited). On August 2, 1692, Newton wrote a letter to Locke, using the term " red earth ". From the published correspondence it is clear that Newton never tried to produce gold with the "red earth", but that a year later, in August 1693, he dared to try it himself and took some of the "red earth" that was in the caused an emotional breakdown in the following weeks.

The concept of the corpuscle

Bolye developed a conception according to which there were a large number of very small particles that are combined in different ways and made a shape, which he corpuscle corpuscles called. He called the comprehensive theory for this corpuscularian theory , from whose simplicity and at the same time universality he assumed, so that one does not have to fear that it would ever be superseded by another physical hypothesis.

Fonts (selection)

Royal Society of Chemistry - Robert Boyle Prize for Analytical Science - 2014 - Andy Mabbett - 01.JPG
  • New physico-mechanic experiments, touching the spring of the air and its effects . Oxford 1660, (online) .
  • The Skeptical Chymist . 1661. (online) , German The Skeptical Chemist , ISBN 3-8171-3229-8 .
  • Certain Physiological Essays . 1661. - 5 essays
  • A Defense of the Doctrine Touching the Spring and Weight of the Air . Oxford 1662, (online) .
  • Experiments Touching Colors . 1664. (online) .
  • New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold or an Experimental History of Cold, Begun . London 1665, (online) .
  • Hydrostatical paradoxes, made out by new experiments… 1666. (online) .
  • The general history of the air. London 1692.
  • Boyle Papers University of London (estate of the Royal Society)

Editions of works, letters:

  • Michael Hunter (Ed.): Robert Boyle by Himself and his Friends , London: Pickering & Chatto, 1994
  • Michael Hunter, Lawrence M. Principe , Antonio Clericuzio (Eds.): The Correspondence of Robert Boyle , 6 volumes, London: Pickering & Chatto 2001
  • Thomas Birch (Ed.): The Works of the Honorable Robert Boyle , 5 volumes, London, 1744, 2nd edition, 6 volumes, London 1772, Google books.
  • Michael Hunter, Edward B. Davis (Eds.): The Works of Robert Boyle , 14 volumes, London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999, 2000


  • Marie Boas Hall : Boyle, Robert . In: Charles Coulston Gillispie (Ed.): Dictionary of Scientific Biography . tape 2 : Hans Berger - Christoph Buys Ballot . Charles Scribner's Sons, New York 1970, p. 377-382 .
  • Marie Boas Hall: Robert Boyle and Seventeenth-Century Chemistry , Cambridge University Press, 1958 (received the Pfizer Prize)
  • Marie Boas Hall (Ed.): Robert Boyle and Natural Philosophy , Bloomington, Indiana 1965
  • REW Maddison: The life of the honorable Robert Boyle FRS Taylor & Francis, London 1969.
  • Robert Boyle: in The Book of Great Chemists , Volume I, Verlag Chemie GmbH, Weinheim 1955, pp. 173 ff.
  • Lawrence M. Principe : The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest , Princeton, 1998
  • Lawrence M. Principe: Robert Boyle , in: Claus Priesner , Karin Figala : Alchemie. Lexicon of a Hermetic Science , Beck 1998, pp. 88-91
  • A. Clericuzio: A redefinition of Boyle's chemistry and corpuscular philosophy , Annals of Science, 47 (1990), 561-589.
  • Michael Hunter: Boyle, Robert , New Dictionary of Scientific Biography
  • M. Hunter: Alchemy, Magic and Moralism in the thought of Robert Boyle , British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 23, 1990, pp. 387-410
  • M. Hunter (Ed.): Robert Boyle reconsidered , Cambridge 1994
  • Simon Schaffer , Steven Shapin : Leviathan and the air-pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life , Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 1985, 1989.
  • Rainer Specht : Experience and Hypotheses. Opinions in Locke's circle, in: Philosophisches Jahrbuch 88 (1981) 20–49.

Web links

Commons : Robert Boyle  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Robert Boyle's 'Skceptical Chymist' sells for near € 0.5m , The Irish Times , March 26, 2015
  2. The Boyle – Hobbes Dispute
  3. Chemiedidaktik Universität Oldenburg: Joseph Black (PDF; 74 kB)
  4. Claus Priesner , History of Alchemy, Beck 2011, p. 90
  5. cf. Isaac Newton Correspondence, III: 215 f; Dewhurst, John Locke physician and philosopher
  6. ^ Robert Boyle: About the Excellency and Grounds of the Mechanical Hypothesis. 1674 (created around 1665) In: Thomas Birch (Ed.): The Works of the Honorable Robert Boyle. London 1772, vol. IV