Robert Boyle and the origin of “chemical analysis”

A history of chemistry... citing Boyle as the first to use the term: Chemical Analysis
A history of chemistry… citing Boyle as the first to use the term: Chemical Analysis

Yesterday was Robert Boyle’s birthday (happy birthday Bob!) and in Twitter chit-chat, an interesting nugget emerged from Prof Damien Arrigan. He recalled reading that it was Boyle who first coined the term chemical analysis. Pointing me to the source, a paper by Duncan Thorburn Burns in his 1982 paper on Boyle, one can go back further to the original reference: Ernest von Meyer’s 1891 book “A History of Chemistry from the Earliest Times to the Present Day“, now available on archive.org. In this edition, we can see on pp 111-112 that Boyle progressed from the fluctuating and uncertain meaning of ‘element’ to one that meant a substance “that can be demonstrated to be the undecomposable constituents of bodies” (von Meyer). Boyle also considered that in time many more elements would be discovered, and that many existing substances considered to be elements were not actually so. Boyle continued this thought process to consider compounds, distinguishing them from mixtures; these being a combination of two constituents that differ in properties from either constituent alone.

All of this leads to a rational conceptualisation of the main problem of chemistry at the time: the investigation of the composition of substances. von Meyer considers that before Boyle’s time, analytical chemistry did not exist, and that Boyle was the first to use the term chemical analysis. (We also owe him thanks for the term “chemical reaction”.) Thorburn Burns reports that the first explicit use of the term was in a letter from Boyle to Frederick Clodius (a chemist) written in Ireland in 1654:

“I live here in a barbarous country where chemical spirits are too misunderstood, and chemical instruments so unprocurable, that it is hard to have any hermetic thoughts in it, and impossible to bring them to experiment. . . . For my part, that I may not live wholly useless, or altogether a stranger in the study of nature, since I wont for glasses and furnaces to make a chemical analysis of inanimate bodies, I am exercising myself in making anatomical dissections of living animals”

Of especial interest to Irish historians, on searching the original source,* it appears that Boyle was going to be assisted in this task by his friend Dr (later Sir) William Petty, army physician, and all round polymath.

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*Birch’s The works of the Honourable Robert Boyle, available on Hathitrust.

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