Friday, December 31, 2021

Robert Boyle’s workdiaries

Robert Boyle, the great English scientist, died 330 years ago today. Famed for his role as the father of chemistry and modern experimental methods, he is also known for discovering Boyle’s Law, various inventions, and for leaving behind a large number of writings, not least his workdiaries. These latter have been made freely available online thanks to the Robert Boyle Project at Birkbeck College, London.

Boyle was born in 1627, son of Richard Boyle, an Elizabethan adventurer-colonist who made his fortune in Ireland and became ennobled as the 1st Earl of Cork. (Richard Boyle, in fact, was a noted diarist - see The Diary Junction and The Great Earl of Cork.) He studied for a short while at Eton before travelling on the Continent with a French tutor. After returning to England in 1644, he went to live at a manor in Stalbridge, Dorset, inherited from his father. He also tried moving to Ireland, where he owned other estates, but by the 1650s was living mostly in Oxford where he associated with a group of natural philosophers.

Boyle’s travels abroad had given him a taste for scientific research, and, although his first writings had largely been concerned with moral and literary aspects of life, once in Oxford he began to focus more on science. A first achievement - improvements to the air-pump invented in Germany - came with the help of Robert Hooke; and in 1660 Boyle published New Experiments: Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects: Made, for the most part, in a New Pneumatical Engine.

In the early 1660s, Boyle described in print what has since become known as Boyle’s Law, i.e. that there is an inversely proportional relationship between the absolute pressure and volume of a gas, if the temperature is kept constant within a closed system. Around the same time he also became a founding member of the Royal Society, as incorporated by Charles II (though later when elected President he declined the honour). In 1668 he moved to London, where he lived at the house of his sister, and where he continued to experiment and write until his death on 31 December 1691. Among his more significant publications during this period were: Experiments, Notes, &, about the Mechanical Origin or Production of Divers Particular Qualities; sequels to his New Experiments; Memoirs for the Natural History of Human Blood; and Medicina Hydrostatica.

See the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy or Wikipedia for further biographical information. However, there is also a large amount of information about Boyle on the Robert Boyle Project website hosted by Birkbeck College, part of the University of London. In 2001, the Project published an online edition of Boyle’s so-called workdiaries, written between 1647 and 1691. More recently, the workdiaries have been given their own website hosted by Cell (Centre for Editing Lives and Letters).

The Project website says: ‘These modest-looking bundles of papers and stitched books, some stained with chemicals and covered with notes and comments, reveal the methods and procedures of Boyle’s scientific enquiries.’ They also include ‘records of recipes, measurements, apparatus and data collection, as well as notes from Boyle’s reading and conversations with travellers and artisans.’ Here’s two tasters of the workdiaries taken from the start of workdiary 16

1 January 1657
‘Take Linseed Oyle {pound}1 frankinsence {pound}; comon Amber {ounce} 2 Gummi Lacca {ounce} 1; Aloes {ounce} 2 Beat the Amber by it selfe & melt it by it selfe Beat the Gumme into fine powder Boyle all these with a gentle fire 2 houres (keeping the Liquor constantly stirring with a Stick least it Burne) till the Materialls be perfectly dissolv’d in the Oyle And then have you made your vernish to guild Leather with’.

2 January 1657
‘Take Aquila Cælestis & dissolve it in as much water as will barely suffice for the solution of it, In this Liquor dissolve as much Sal Infernalis as you can in a gentle heat Then let it stand in the open aire, (stirring it often) till the humidity be evaporated & the bodies united this masse you may if need be once more moisten/original pagination, with the Solution of the Infernall Salt & to make it dry the sooner you may Incorporate it with sifted bone=ashes & when it is perfectly dry draw it over with a strong fire & if need be severall Cohobations, In like maner you may imbibe the fixt Salt of the Homogeneous Menstruum with as much of the dissolvd volatile Salt or Sp: of the same as the fixt salt will retaine & Conjunction being made in the open aire the united Salts may be drawne over with Due Cohobation as formerly’.

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 31 December 2011.

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