Robert Boyle and The Sceptical Chymist

The National Library of Ireland’s new installment of their Discover exhibition, focusing on science, is called Particles of the Past. One of the centre-pieces of the exhibition is a copy of “The Sceptical Chymist” by Robert Boyle, published just over 350 years ago. The story of Boyle is a fascinating one, as it interweaves through a turbulent part of Irish history as well as an enlightening time in the development of science, heralding a new era of chemistry. Yet beyond Boyle’s Law, I have to admit I never knew too much about the “Father of Chemistry”.

Boyle’s father, Richard Boyle, was not born wealthy, but as a student in Cambridge, saw an opportunity in the turbulence in Ireland in the late 16th century, caused by the Elizabethan wars. In Munster, the Desmond dynasty was removed and land provided to English Royalists. Boyle arrived with just £27 3 s in 1588, the same year the Spanish Armada left to conquer England. After marrying the daughter of the Irish Secretary of State, Boyle was awarded several titles of nobility and a huge estate, centring on Lismore, Co Waterford. His son, Robert Boyle was born on Jan 25th, 1627, two years after the succession of Charles I. His father was extraordinarily wealthy by this time, earning £250 per day, and was one of the largest owners of land in the Empire. Boyle was sent to an Irish family for nursing (he was the seventh son and the fourteenth child in his family). He must have been exposed to a lot of Irish (Gaelic) as later in life, he personally paid for a printing of an Irish version of the bible.

Soon after returning home from nursing, Boyle’s mother died, and he was sent with his brother to Eton in 1636. Being “Irish”, and having a slight stammer, he did not fit in well, and spent most of his time reading. By 1640, the two boys were brought on a tour of Europe by a French tutor, including a visit to Galileo in Florence. Religious strife at home, culminating in the rebellion of 1641 meant that Boyle’s father’s wealth greatly diminished due to the cost of war. He died in 1643. Facing civil war at home, Charles arranged for a ceasefire so that his Royalist soldiers could return home to fight parliamentarians. The Royalists lost, and Oliver Cromwell, leading soldier in the parliamentarian army was soon dispatched to subdue the Irish rebels, arriving at Drogheda in 1649, and travelling through the rest of the country in the following years. One of the men to come with him was William Petty, who acquired the great Shelbourne/Lansdowne estates in Kerry. Boyle became a friend of Petty, but found that he could not continue his interest in scientific research in Ireland. Having inherited a property in Devon on his father’s death, he moved to Oxford in 1654.

His education to date had been quite erratic, so Boyle’s early years at Oxford were served as an “apprenticeship” working with Peter Sthael and Rosicrucian. Boyle’s first major piece of work was published in 1657, “On the Spring and Weight of Air”, although it is now generally acknowledged, that this was primarily the work of Robert Hooke – a fact Boyle made clear in the second edition of the corresponding publication.

By 1660 the monarchy had been restored, and Charles II established formally the Royal Society, which had been made up of an informal group of intellectuals, including Boyle, Hooke, Petty and others, called the Invisible College. Persuaded by friends, an initially reluctant Boyle published huge amount of material through the Royal Society, so much so that scholars now consider that he directed a lot of research, rather than completing the experiments himself; in much the same was as modern “principal investigators”. (I like to think of Boyle as the first equivalent of the modern Principal Investigator, and Hooke his first post-doc!) Among these publications was, in 1661, The Sceptical Chymist, the result of 10 years experimentation. It would usher in a modern era of chemistry… slowly…!

References

Journal of Chemical Education has some nice articles on Boyle over the years: 2009, p. 148, 2003, p. 487, 1951, p. 178 (excellent article)

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