This culture landmark provides a general overview of Robert Boyle, regarded today as the first modern chemist.

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Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle was born at Lismore Castle (Ireland) on 25 January 1627, the youngest son of Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork, an 'adventurer' who made his fortune in Ireland and who was one of the richest and most influential men in Britain. Boyle's upbringing was fairly conventional. He was educated partly at home and partly at Eton College, completing his education by travelling to France, Italy and Switzerland, where he spent several months and where he received further instruction. It was during these continental travels that Boyle had a conversion experience; his profound religiosity influenced his outlook in natural philosophy, as in life in general.

Lismore Castle

Lismore Castle, Co. Cork, Ireland. Image from

In 1649 Boyle set up a laboratory at his house in Stalbridge (England), and the experiments that this enabled him to carry out seem immediately to have fascinated him. His empirical investigations at this point clearly concerned a range of chemical (and alchemical) trials; he also refers to his use of a microscope to observe the minute structure of living things.

In 1655 or 1656, Boyle moved to Oxford to join the group of natural philosophers that is often seen as the precursor of the Royal Society, which was founded in 1660. It was during these years that Boyle engaged Robert Hooke as an assistant and together they devised the most famous piece of experimental equipment associated with Boyle, the vacuum chamber or air-pump.


Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle (1627-1691),
Anglo-Irish chemist.
Image from

Lismore map

Lismore, Co. Cork.


  • Lismore, private tutor
  • England, Eton College
  • Switzerland, private tutor (also on a tour in France and Italy)
  • England, Self-teaching in his house in Stalbridge
  • England, Oxford

Although Boyle’s chief scientific interest was chemistry, his first published scientific work, New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air and Its Effects (1660), concerned the physical nature of air, as displayed in a brilliant series of experiments in which he used an air pump to create a vacuum. The second edition of this work, published in 1662, laid out the quantitative relationship that Boyle derived from experimental values, later known as “Boyle’s law”: that the volume of a gas varies inversely with pressure.

Hooke's microscope

Hooke's microscope.
Image from

Boyle's New Experiments

Boyle's New Experiments. Image from Smithsonian Libraries

Boyle's first air pump

Boyle's first air pump. Image from

Boyle's law demonstration.

Boyle's Law

Boyle's Law
Image from

Boyle was an experimenter both in theory and practice. In his series of essays Certain Physiological Essays (1661), he presents a very subtle view of experiment, including two key essays on the significance of unsuccessful experiments, together with others in which he illustrated the way in which such experiments could be used to provide a foundation for his version of the mechanical philosophy, to which he gave the name 'corpuscularianism'.

Boyle was the first natural philosopher to emphasize the importance of unsuccessful experiments.

Instead of defining physical reality and analyzing change in terms of Aristotelian substance and form and the classical four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, corpuscularianism discussed reality and change in terms of particles and their motion. Boyle believed that chemical experiments could demonstrate the truth of the corpuscularian philosophy.

Throughout his life, Boyle displayed an extraordinary ingenuity in designing experiments which would reveal significant information about the phenomena he studied, combined with an unprecedented precision in observing their outcome. He also developed characteristic methods as a writer. He went to great pains to give a detailed account of his trials so that others could follow as closely as possible the procedures that he had followed, providing a model for others which was widely followed.



1. Where was Boyle born?

2. Who was his father?

3. Where did he study? (Mention three countries at least)

4. What is the Royal Society?

5. What does Boyle's Law demonstrate?

6. What is "corpulaniarism"?

7. How does corpulaniarism contradict Aristotelian theories?

8. How did he explain his experiments?

9. What are base metals?

10. What is transmutation?

11. What happens to metals when they are heated?

12. Was he opposed to alchemy? Support your answer with two examples.

13. Define his relation with religion.

14. Why do you think that explaining unsuccessful experiments is important?

Base metals

Base metals include lead, copper, nickel, and zinc. They are often more abundant in nature and sometimes easier to mine. That makes base metals far less expensive for use in manufacturing than precious metals, such as gold, silver, and platinum.
Image from

In his experiments Boyle made many important observations, including that of the weight gain by metals when they are heated to become calxes. He interpreted this phenomenon as caused by fiery particles that were able to pass through the walls of glass vessels.

Boyle’s theories of material change did nothing to eliminate the possibility of the transmutation of base metals to gold that was at the heart of alchemy. Indeed he practiced alchemy until the end of his life, believed that he had witnessed transmutation, and successfully lobbied Parliament to repeal England's ban on transmutation.

Boyle also wrote extensively on natural theology, advocating the notion that God created the universe according to definite laws. In all his writings, Boyle was fiercely hostile to views of nature that he saw as detracting from a proper appreciation of God's power in his creation.

Adapted from, and


is nowadays considered a pseudoscience, but in ancient times it was a very respected all-in-one science that encompassed physics, medicine, astrology, mysticism, spiritualism, and art.

For further information view the Khan Academy article 'From Alchemy to Chemistry'


1. In Lismore Castle, Co. Cork (Ireland).
2. Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork.
3. Ireland, England, Switzerland, France, Italy.
4. An association of scientists that was born to promote scientific knowledge.
5. That the volume of a gas varies inversely with pressure.
6. Corpuscularianism discussed reality and change in terms of particles and their motion.

7. Corpulanarism moves away from explaining nature using Aristotelian substance, form and the classical four elements of earth, air, fire, and water.
8. He wrote in a very clear and concise way and explained every detail of his experiments so that anybody could repeat them.
9. Lead, copper, nickel and zinc, abundant and easy to mine.
10. A term used in alchemy to describe the transformation of base metals into gold.

11. Metals gain weight when heated.
12. No, he practised alchemy all through his life and influenced the government to revoke its prohibition.
13. He believed that God created the universe according to definite laws and was was hostile to any views minimizing God's importance in the creation of nature.
14. Because other scientists will know that those experiments do not work and they will not conduct them.


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