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Biography of Robert Boyle

Portrait of Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle was a seventeenth century chemist famous for his work on gases.

When and Where was he Born?

25th January 1627, Lismore Castle, Waterford, County Cork, Ireland.

Family Background:

Boyle was the seventh Son of Robert Boyle the protestant First Earl of Cork. He was one of fourteen children. His father had gone to Ireland in 1588 and later bought Sir Walter Raleigh’s estates in Cork in 1600. He was also known as the richest man in England. His mother Catherine Fenton, was Boyle Senior’s second wife.

Education:

Privately and at Eton College.

Timeline of Robert Boyle:

1629: Robert Boyle Senior, the Earl of Cork is appointed the Lord High Justice

1631: The Earl of Cork is appointed Lord High Treasurer. Death of his mother and Boyle goes to live in Dublin with the rest of his family leaving his country nurse.

1635: Boyle is sent to England to study at Eton.

1638: The Earl of Cork takes both his sons away from the school as he did not agree with the new headmaster’s style of teaching which was not having a beneficial effect on his boys. He was now tutored privately by one of his father’s chaplains.

1639: At the age of 12 Robert Boyle is sent on a European tour by his father with one of his brothers visiting Paris and Geneva.

1641: By now he is in Italy having learnt Italian and he and his tutor visit Venice.

1642: They visit Florence. Galileo dies whilst he is in the city but there is no evidence that the two actually met, however Boyle was much influenced by the event and this made him study Galileo’s works in detail. Boyle moves on to Marseille in May waiting for money from his father so that he could return home. The money sent to him never reached him due to an uprising in Munster so he returns to Geneva where he lived off his tutor’s earnings.

1643: King Charles the First negotiates with the Irish Rebels so that the Earl of Cork can bring his troops back to England to help with the Civil War. The Earl of Cork never forgave the King for treating the Irish as equals and died later that year.

1644: Boyle sells some jewellery to finance his return to England. Once home he lives with his sister Katherine.

1646: Due to the upheavals of the Civil War it was only now that he could move into the Manor house of Stalbridge in Dorset, which had been bequeathed to him by his father. He tried not to take sides in the Civil war as his father had been a staunch Royalist and his Sister held out for Parliament and it is clear that he had no feeling for either.

1649: King Charles the First is tried and executed on 30th January.

1651: Oliver Cromwell sees off the threat from the future King Charles the Second by defeating him at the Battle of Worcester on 3rd September. He then goes off to Ireland to defeat an Irish uprising.

1652: Boyle returns to Ireland to look after his estates and becomes a very rich man after Cromwell apportioned Irish lands to the English lords. This money meant that he could devote himself to science without having to worry about funding.

1653: He visits London and meets John Wilkins who was to later to become one of the founders of the Royal Society of London. Wilkins had just been appointed as Warden of Wadham College in Oxford and led what was referred to as the “Invisible College” which was an anti-scholastic organisation of Oxford intellectuals and the forerunner to the Royal Society. Wadham encourages Boyle to live in Oxford but he decides not to live in college with Wadham but hires his own rooms so that he could conduct his experiments. Here he met many important scientists such as John Wallis, Savilian Professor of Geometry and Christopher Wren although he never held a university post himself.

Robert Hooke Robert Boyle
Plaque to Boyle and Hooke in Oxford High Street

1660: Boyle works with experiments on an air pump designed by his assistant Robert Hooke. He found many discoveries including that sound does not travel in a vacuum. He also proved that flames needed air to burn and life also needed air.

1661: Robert Boyle argues against Aristotle’s four elements of earth, air, fire and water and said that matter was made up of small corpuscles, which were built up by different configurations of primary particles. Although he owed a debt to Renee Descartes, Descartes did not believe in a vacuum but an all-pervading ether.

1662: Boyle’s Law first appears which states that the pressure and volume of gas are inversely proportional. Many scientists including Thomas Hobbes said that a vacuum could not exist but Boyle proved that it was theoretically possible. Hobbes declared that Boyle’s results must be because of some otherwise unknown event. He also works on the calcination of metals, the properties of acids and alkalis, specific gravity, crystallography and refraction and was the first to prepare phosphorus. He is also appointed as a director of the East India Company and tirelessly tries to bring Christianity to the lands where it traded.

1664: He begins to work on optics and colours although his work in this field was not as successful. He always acknowledged the work of his pupil Robert Hooke as superior.

1668: Robert Boyle leaves Oxford to live with his sister Lady Ranelagh in London.

1670: He has a stroke but his health returns gradually.

1672: He states that the work of Isaac Newton on colour theory was more superior to his own and should replace it.

1680: Although one of the founding father’s of the Royal Society of London Boyle declines the offer to become its President as he believed he could not swear the necessary religious oaths.

1691: Death of his sister Katherine a week before he himself died. Boyle had lived and worked with her there for the last twenty years.

When and Where did he Die?

31st December 1691, London, England of “paralysis” (probably a stroke).

Age at Death:

64.

Written Works:

1660: “New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall”.
1661: “Physiologocial Essays”.
1662: “Sceptical Chymist”.
1666: “Origin of Forms and Qualities”.
1664: “Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours”.
(1692): “General History of the Air”.

Marriage:

Never married.

Site of Grave:

St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, St. Martin’s Place, London, England.

St Martin's in the Fields, London St Martin's in the Fields
St Martin’s in the Fields, London (copyright  Anthony Blagg)

Places of Interest:

LONDON:

The Science Museum.
The Royal Society of London.
St Martin’s in the Fields.

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