Robert Boyle

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Boyle, Robert,

1627–91, Anglo-Irish physicist and chemist. The seventh son of the 1st earl of Cork, he was educated at Eton and on the Continent and conducted most of his researches at his own laboratories at Oxford (1654–68) and London (1668–91). He invented a vacuum pump and used it in the discovery (1662) of what is now known as Boyle's law (see gas lawsgas laws,
physical laws describing the behavior of a gas under various conditions of pressure, volume, and temperature. Experimental results indicate that all real gases behave in approximately the same manner, having their volume reduced by about the same proportion of the
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). Boyle is often referred to as the father of modern chemistry; he separated chemistry from alchemy and gave the first precise definitions of a chemical element, a chemical reaction, and chemical analysis. He also made studies of the calcination of metals, combustion, acids and bases, the nature of colors, and the propagation of sound. Although he was especially noted for his experimental work, Boyle also contributed to physical theory, supporting an early form of the atomic theory of matter, which he called the corpuscular philosophy, and using it to explain many of his experimental results. His extensive writings contributed greatly to the dominance of the mechanistic theory following Newton's work. Boyle was one of the group at Oxford that later became the Royal Society, but he refused the presidency of the society in 1680, as well as many other honors.


See his works, ed. by T. Birch (6 vol., 1772; repr. 1965–66); biographies by R. E. W. Maddison (1969) and M. Hunter (2009); study by M. B. Hall (1958, repr. 1968).

Boyle, Robert


Born Jan. 25, 1627, in Lismore, Ireland; died Dec. 31, 1691, in London. English chemist and physicist. Studied at Eton.

At first Boyle was concerned with religious and philosophical questions, but beginning in 1654, after transferring to Oxford, he took part in the works of a scientific society (nicknamed the Invisible College, as it met sometimes at Oxford, sometimes in London) and turned to investigations in the areas of chemistry and physics. In 1665 he received the degree of honorary doctor of physics from Oxford University. In 1668 he settled in London, where in 1680 he was chosen president of the Royal Society (organized in 1663 on the basis of the Invisible College), but he declined this responsibility.

In the book The Sceptical Chymist (published anonymously in 1661), Boyle demonstrates that chemistry should constitute itself as an independent science, rather than concern itself with attempts to transform base metals into gold or search for means of making medicines. He rejected both the teaching of the four elements (fire, air, water, and earth) and the teaching of Paracelsus about the three elements (sulfur, mercury, and salt) of which all natural bodies were supposedly composed. Boyle considered elements to be simple bodies which could not be made from other bodies.

In his experimental investigations Boyle applied broadly both qualitative and quantitative methods. Thus, investigating the composition of mineral waters (1684–85), he used a decoction of oak galls for discovering iron, ammonia for discovering copper, and vegetable dyes for establishing an acid or basic reaction; and he noted the taste of the waters and measured their density. He described the properties of phosphorus (obtained by Boyle in 1680 independently from other chemists), demonstrating its color, smell, density, ability to glow, and relation to solvents. Boyle frequently used scales, although not very accurate ones (from 1 to 0.5 grains, that is, from 60 to 30 mg). Especially famous are his experiments in which he burned metals in sealed vessels (published in 1673). Boyle weighed the retorts with the metal before heating; after heating he again weighed them, first breaking off the sealed neck. In this procedure he always noticed an additional weight, which he erroneously explained by saying that the “corpuscles of fire” penetrate through the glass and are absorbed by the metal. In 1756, M. V. Lomonosov showed that the weight of the vessel in which the metal is sealed remains constant. In 1774, A. L. Lavoisier corroborated this conclusion, and showed in addition that burning metals combine with the oxygen of the air, and for this reason a weight gain is observed.

The works of Boyle gave Engels the occasion to say “Boyle makes chemistry into a science” (Dialektika prirody, 1969, p. 158). Boyle only began the process of transforming chemistry into a science. This process was concluded in the second half of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries by the works of Lomonosov, Lavoisier, and Dalton. Nevertheless, the historical services of Boyle are indisputable; he formulated the first scientific definition of the concept of a chemical element, introduced the experimental method to chemistry, began the use of the wet method in chemical analysis, and recognized chemistry as an independent science.

Boyle can also be credited with fundamental works in physics. In 1662, together with R. Townley, Boyle established the dependence of the volume of a mass of air upon the pressure, given constant temperature, a relationship expressed in the Boyle-Mariotte Law.

Boyle’s world view was complicated and contradictory. Although a supporter of the atomism of P. Gassendi, which was based on the teachings of Epicurus, Boyle was afraid to undermine the dogma of religion with these teachings. Defending the principles of mechanism, he rejected the objective existence of qualitative differences and reduced the multiplicity of phenomena to differences in number and spatial grouping and to the mechanical motion of primary non-qualitative corpuscles (atoms), differentiated only by dimension and form. In explaining the properties of objects, Boyle relied on J. Locke’s conception of primary and secondary qualities. Boyle presented his own mechanistic world view in the composition The Origin of Forms and Qualities According to the Corpuscular Philosophy (1666). Discovering an inconsistency in mechanical materialism, its inability to find in the material itself the source of all the variations of nature, Boyle tried to find an outlet in a religious world view.


The Works, Epitomiz’d by Boulton, vols. 1–3. London, 1699–1700.
The Works, vols. 1–6, 2nd ed. Edited by Thomas Birch. London, 1772.
The Sceptical Chymist. London-New York, [1949].


Giua, M. Istoriia khimii. Moscow, 1966. Pages 87–94. (Translated from Italian.)
Figurovskii, N. A. Ocherki obshchei istorii khimii ot drevneishikh vremen do nachala 19 v. Moscow, 1969.
More, L. T. The Life and Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle. London, 1944.
Boas, M. Robert Boyle and the Seventeenth Century Chemistry. Cambridge, 1958.
Partington, J. R. A History of Chemistry, vol. 2. London, 1961. Pages 486–549.
Fulton, J. F. A Bibliography of the Honourable R. Boyle. Oxford, 1961.


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