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Hennig Brand
Georg Brandt
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Axel Frederik Cronstedt
John Dalton
Antoine Lavoisier
Albertus Magnus
Joseph Priestley
Carl Wilhelm Scheele

The development of the Phlogiston Theory
Antoine Lavoisier and the demise of the Phlogiston Theory

Robert Boyle and his Assistants:
Their part in the Phosphorus Story

History of Science and Technology Index


For information: Brief History of Atomic Theory

From the ancient Greek philosophers:

Empedocles (495 BC - 430 BC): Everything based on four 'elements'

  • water (representing liquids)

  • air (representing gases)

  • earth (representing solids)

  • fire (representing heat)

The proportions of these four elements accounted for the difference between one 'matter' and another.

Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC): Added a 'fifth' element

æther (representing the divine, spirituality)

Democritus (460 BC - 370 BC): Put forward the concept of Atomism (the word Atom is ancient Greek for 'indivisible').

All matter made of particles (atoms). When there was no matter then a void existed. Atoms were of an infinite number, could not be destroyed, could not be divided and could combine with each other.

Alchemists through the ages followed the five elements theory of Aristotle.

Albertus Magnus (13th Century): a great fan of Aristotle who translated his writings so that they were accessible to scholars of the day.

Paracelsus (16th Century) : introduced iatrochemistry (an early form of medical chemistry). He proposed that there were three 'elements' that played a part in all diseases:

  • Sulfur (the combustible element that represented the soul)

  • Mercury (the fluid and changeable element that represented the spirit)

  • Salt (the solid and permanent element that represented the body)

Early 17th Century : Re-discovery of Atomism in the form of Corpuscularianism.

Corpuscularianism was very similar to Atomism but the belief was that the 'corpuscles' (atoms) could be divided and that liquid mercury could be added to a metal so as to change that metal into another. This was the alchemists 'transmutation'.

Galileo (1564 - 1642) developed the corpuscular theory. He used the term 'corporeal substances' for materials.

René Descartes (1596 - 1650) was an advocate of Corpuscularianism but he did not accept the concept of a void.

Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691) who clung to the alchemist idea of transmutation of metals, was a Corpuscularian, influenced by Galileo but he disagreed with Descartes since Boyle's experiments with the vacuum pump had proved that a void was possible.



Boyle's main contributions to Experimental Physics

Boyles Law (also known as the Boyle-Mariotte Law)


Modern apparatus used to prove Boyle's Law

If the pressure of the gas is measured at different volumes while the temperature remains constant, the results are as shown by the graph below.

Graph 1

Changes of pressure and volume which take place at constant temperature are called isothermal changes. The curve above is called an isothermal.

The general shape of this graph should be no surprise since we know that the pressure exerted by a gas increases as it is compressed into a smaller volume.

However, if we now plot pressure against 1/volume, we obtain the following graph.

Graph 2

The pressure of a fixed mass of gas at constant temperature is inversely proportional to the volume.


From Boyle's experiments with a vacuum

  • Sound does not travel through a vacuum

  • Magnetism can travel through a vacuum

  • Light can travel through a vacuum

  • Electric forces operate in a vacuum

  • A vacuum does not support combustion

That air has 'weight' and that not all of air supports combustion (it needs to be remembered that the composition of the air, and even the elements that are found in air, had not yet been discovered!)



Vacuum pump

From New Experiments Physico-Mechanical: Touching the Spring of the Air and their Effects Robert Boyle 1661


Sceptical Chymist

The Sceptical Chymist 1661 (Chemical Heritage Foundation)



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Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691)


Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle by Johann Kerseboom (NPG)

Robert Boyle was born in Lismore Castle, County Waterford, Ireland during the reign of King Charles I. His father, Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork was a wealthy, English Protestant aristocrat who had acquired the Irish estates that had once been owned by Sir Walter Raleigh.

Richard Boyle's first wife had died shortly after the birth of his first child. His second wife, Catherine Fenton, not only brought more estates to the marriage but also produced another fourteen children, of which Robert Boyle was the seventh and last son. In an early autobiography written by Robert Boyle in around 1648 in which Boyle refers to himself as Philaretus, he muses that he was very pleased with his situation in life "not high enough to encourage laziness but not low enough to prevent him from aspiring".

At a very young age Boyle was placed in the care of a "country nurse". Looking back, he considered this to have been beneficial since it provided "a course and cleanly diet and the usual passions of the air, gave him so vigorous a complexion, that both hardships were made easy to him by custom". However, there was one aspect of this part of his childhood Boyle deeply regretted. It appears that one of the children he played with had a stutter that Boyle copied and, in his words he "contracted it". It seems that many cures were tried but none of them were successful.

Boyle's mother, Catherine, died when he was about three years old. In his autobiography he admits that he was too young at the time to appreciate his loss but writes that she gave him "her free and noble spirit". Boyle himself had a near-tragic accident before the age of eight. He recalls that, en route to Dublin, when he was alone in a carriage that was about to cross a swollen stream. One of his father's trusted servants took the young Boyle from the coach and safely transported him across the stream. The coach, however, was washed away by the current.

After the death of his mother, Boyle returned to live in Lismore Castle. His father employed a French chaplain as a tutor for Robert and his older brother, Francis. Boyle writes that his father was pleased that, before his son had reached his eighth year, he was able to read and write in both French and Latin.

At eight years old, Robert Boyle was sent to Eton, along with his brother Francis. The Provost of Eton was Sir Henry Wotton who was a good friend of Richard Boyle. After travelling by road from Lismore to Youghall, the brothers waited one week for a fair wind to allow their ship to set sail. When this did arrive and the ship was out of the port, it brought with it a storm that forced the ship back to harbour for another eight days. In 1636 even the short sea voyage from Ireland to England was perilous. There were Barbary pirate ships near the Irish coast that dealt in slaves. Those unlucky enough to be captured found themselves as merchandise in North African slave markets. It is understandable that the young Boyle and his company felt relieved when they docked at Ilfracombe in North Devon.

Sir Henry Wotton had sent a gentleman named Robert Carew to accompany the boys to Eton. Their journey took them to Minehead and Bristol. Boyle was quick to realise the Carew was a man of loose morals, particularly addicted to gambling. In his autobiography Boyle takes pride in the fact that he was not seduced by Carew's questionable habits, in Boyle's own words "Wherefore our Philaretus deservedly reckoned it, both amongst the greatest and the unlikeliest deliverances he owed providence, that he was protected from the contagion of such precedents."

At Eton Boyle's housemaster was John Harrison who was quick to notice his young charge's ability and he took Boyle out of regular classes in order to give him private tuition. In his autobiography Boyle shows his gratitude to his housemaster for teaching him how to study for pleasure rather than to please others. Harrison did plan breaks for his student but Boyle preferred his books and needed to be coaxed away at recreation times. Boyle became "addicted to the solid parts of knowledge", preferring science and mathematics to Latin and French.

Boyle relates another three incidents when his life was in serious danger. The first when a wall collapsed in the boarding house at Eton and he could easily have been crushed or suffocated. The second when the horse he was riding took fright and reared, unseating Boyle who fell to the ground and the horse's hooves landed just short of his head. The third was when he was ill and was given the wrong medicine that caused a serious reaction that made him fear for his life (this particular incident left him with a distrust of doctors). Boyle saw God's hand in his escape from these potentially fatal accidents.

When Boyle was about ten years old he visited his father who had travelled from Ireland to the newly acquired Stalbridge Estate in Dorset. Boyle had a good relationship with his father. He felt that his father was fond of him and that he was his father's favourite. At the end of the summer holiday his father dropped his son off at Eton before making his way back to Ireland. Boyle would never see his father again.

At around eleven years old, when his education at Eton came to an end, Boyle moved to Stalbridge. His father had organised for the Stalbridge chaplain, William Douch, to tutor his youngest son. Douch re-ignited Boyle's interest in Latin and French. In the spring, three of Boyle's older siblings joined him at Stalbridge. They brought with them a tutor, a Frenchman named Issac Marcombes, who was entrusted with the education of Boyle and his older brother, Francis. Boyle admired Marcombes, although he regretted that his new tutor lost his temper easily. Typically, Boyle relates that this was a good lesson for him since it taught him to strive to keep an even temper. Boyle settled down to study universal history in Latin and conversational French.

At the end of the summer of 1638, Boyle and his brother Francis left Stalbridge for London where Francis was to meet his betrothed, a young lady named Elizabeth Killegrew. Francis and Elizabeth were married at court in the October. Within four days of the marriage both Robert and Francis "kissed their majesty's hands" and set off for a tour of the continent. Not surprisingly, Francis was just a little upset to be leaving his new bride so soon!

So, at twelve years old, Robert Boyle embarked on a tour of the continent along with Francis, Issac Marcombes and three French servants. This tour was to take five years and cover the classical sites of Italy, as well as the cities of Paris and Geneva. Boyle details his journey through France, eventually reaching Geneva where the boys lodged with the Marcombes family. It was during his time in Geneva that Boyle had a revelation during a tremendous thunderstorm that cemented his religious beliefs.

In September 1641, the company left Geneva and travelled south across the Alps and into Italy. Marcombes spoke fluent Italian which aided their progress. Robert Boyle, then aged fourteen, found himself in Florence the year Galileo died, just "a league" from where Boyle was lodged. Even at this young age, Robert had been fascinated by Galileo's work, particularly the way that he had used mathematics to explain motion. Regarding the famous dispute between Galileo and the Church, the young Boyle appears to show sympathy with the Pope, but he does recount a touching story: Galileo was told by friars that his blindness (in old age) was God's punishment. Galileo replied that he had had the satisfaction of not going blind until he had "seen in the heavens what never mortal eyes beheld before".

From Florence the company travelled to Rome. Francis Boyle was overcome by the heat and it was decided to return to Geneva, which they did partly by sea. The journey continued through Monaco to Marseilles where Boyle records that he saw the French king's fleet in the harbour. At Marseille the boys waited for "bills of exchange", the money sent by their father to pay for their passage home. It was 1642 and Ireland was in the grip of rebellion. Richard Boyle had entrusted a certain Mr Perkins in London with £250 to pay for his sons' homeward journey but Mr Perkins absconded with the money.* Marcombes returned with Robert Boyle to Geneva where he lived with his tutor and his family for over a year. Boyle recounts how he had to sell this jewelry in order to pay for his passage back to England in the Spring of 1644.

*The Earl of Cork had been forced to sell his silver plate to raise the money that Perkins had pocketed. In his letter, that reached his sons in Marseilles, he suggested to Marcombes that his sons travel to Ireland or that they make their way to Holland and enter the service of the Prince of Orange. Although the money sent by their father never reached them, Francis Boyle somehow paid for his passage to Ireland in March 1642. On the 3rd September 1642 , then aged nineteen, he fought in the battle at Liscarroll against the Irish, along with three of his brothers, Viscount Dungarvan, Viscount Kinalmeaky and Lord Broghill. Viscount Kinalmeaky was fell in battle and it was Francis Boyle who risked his own life in order to carry his brother's body off the battlefield. Robert Boyle's memories stop short when the party reached Marseilles and it is assumed by many biographers that Francis returned to Geneva with his brother, which is not the case. Since Francis did manage to travel back to Ireland, it begs the question as to whether Robert Boyle really needed to return to Geneva with Marcombes because of a lack of funds, or whether it was to avoid his father's suggested options, either of which would have most likely seen him in military service.

In 1643, the Earl of Cork had died. The Civil War was at its height - the first battle of Newbury took place a week after the Earl's death. Boyle's elder sister, Katherine, had married Viscount Ranelagh, who wielded considerable influence among the Parliamentarians. On his return to England, Boyle stayed with the Ranelagh's in London for four and a half months, during which time he met and befriended some of the more prominent Parliamentarians. Boyle wrote later: "We found things in such a confusion, that although the manor of Stalbridge were by my father's decease descended unto me, yet it was near four months before I could get thither."

In August 1645, aided by the influence of one of his brothers, Boyle gained the permission of Parliament to return to France to settle his account with Isaac Marcombes. He did not remain long on the Continent since, by December 1645, Boyle was making his way to Stalbridge House, Dorset with an escort of Parliamentarians. In a letter to his sister, to his sister, the Viscountess Ranelagh, Boyle describes how they needed to change their route and lodgings as intelligence fed back the position of the Cavaliers ahead of them.

Boyle reached Stalbridge in March 1646 and settled into the life of a reclusive country squire.** However, he did not neglect his studies and, between 1649 and 1650, he converted part of the house into a laboratory where he carried out his research. During his residence at Stalbridge Boyle travelled to Oxford to attend meetings of the 'Philosophical College' (that he also referred to as the 'Invisible College') a society that was dedicated to the new Natural Philosophy and experimental sciences. The Philosophical College was the precursor of the Royal Society. Politically the country was now under the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell after the execution of the King in 1649.

**In 1645, Francis Boyle and his wife Elizabeth received permission to travel to Holland to join the Court of the Princess Mary Stuart, daughter of King Charles I. At around the same time, Prince Charles left Jersey to join his mother in France. Two years later, in February 1648, Robert Boyle travelled to Holland to help his brother Francis escort his wife Elizabeth back to England. Elizabeth was pregnant and the father of her child was Prince Charles, the future Charles II. The round trip was of short duration and Robert Boyle was back in London by 15th April 1648 and in residence at Stalbridge by May 1648. Elizabeth Boyle gave birth to a daughter, Charlotte who was recognised by Prince Charles as is daughter, but was brought up a Boyle.

Boyle travelled to Ireland in 1652 to visit his estates left to him by his father. His stay was short, only a couple of years. The letters he wrote from this time indicate that he felt that he was not managing to progress with his research although his paper 'Of the Atomicall Philosophy ', advocating Atomist ideas, was written during this period. While in Ireland, Boyle developed a fever that may have been the result of a riding accident. This illness left him with weak eyes and trembling hands. The long-term effect was that, from that time on, Boyle needed to employ people to read and to take notes for him.

Returning to England in 1654, Boyle moved to Oxford where he set up a laboratory. He was fortunate enough to meet an undergraduate named Robert Hooke who became Boyle's assistant. Hooke was adept in mechanical engineering and was able to improve on Otto von Guericke's recently invented vacuum pump. The two scientists' experiments on air and on the effects of a vacuum led to important discoveries.

The year 1660 saw the restoration of King Charles II to the throne and the formation of the Royal Society of which Boyle was a founding member. In 1661 Boyle published 'The Sceptical Chymist ' that marked a turning point by bringing chemistry out of the dark ages of alchemy. Boyle was, in fact, an alchemist in that he believed in the transmutation of metals. However, his book admonished alchemists for their secrecy and mystical approach to their experiments.


Boyle's legacy to chemistry is summarized below:

  • He was the first to use the term Chemistry (as opposed to Alchemy)

  • He made his work public (Alchemists, famously, did not publish their 'secrets')

  • He stressed the importance of accurately recording the method of an experiment so that it could be repeated by other scientists.

  • He encouraged the repetition of experiments in order to obtain consistent results.

  • He made it clear that there was no such thing as a 'wrong result' and that unexpected results could lead to new areas of scientific enquiry.

  • He developed the Litmus Test for acids and alkalis and he developed other qualitative, specific chemical tests.



Boyle was a Corpulscularian (see left). He defined elements as simple substances that could not be decomposed into other substances. Compounds were formed from the combination of elements and he was able to distinguish compounds from mixtures. Boyle did not believe that any elements had yet been discovered (he saw gold, silver etc. as being compounds).

In 1668, at forty one years old, Boyle left Oxford and moved to London. He set up a laboratory in his sister's house in Pall Mall. Two years later he suffered a bad stroke but he did make a full recovery. He was offered the presidency of the Royal Society in 1680 but felt that his religious beliefs would not be in accordance with the presidential oath so he declined the position. Katherine Jones died in 1691 and her brother died of a stroke one week after, quite possibly brought on by grief. Robert Boyle was buried in the churchyard of St Martins in the Fields, Westminster. Unfortunately, around 1849 during the Victorian era, the crypts and churchyard of St Martins in the Fields were cleared for development and the coffins were transferred to other churchyards and placed in unmarked graves. Robert Boyle's grave has never been found.


See also:

Robert Boyle and his Assistants: Their part in the Phosphorus Story


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