The Correspondence of Robert Boyle

Primary Contributors:

Michael Hunter, Antonio Clericuzio, and Lawrence M. Principe, eds, ‘The Correspondence of Robert Boyle’, 6 vols (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2001), with metadata supplied by Electronic Enlightenment Project, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford


Robert Boyle, after Johann Kerseboom. c. 1689–90. Oil on canvas, 75.6 by 62.2 cm (On display at Gawthorpe Hall, Lancashire [National Trust]; source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Boyle (1627–1691)

Robert Boyle was one of the most influential and significant scientific figures of the second half of the seventeenth century. Born on 27 January 1627 at Lismore Castle in Ireland, he was the fourteenth child and youngest son of Richard Boyle, first earl of Cork (1566–1643) and his second wife, Catherine Fenton (c. 1588–1630). Boyle was educated at Eton, where he was noted as preferring ‘Learning afore all other vertues or pleasures’,1 as well as through the services of a private tutor and in the course of a continental tour through France, Switzerland, and Italy, on which journey he was accompanied by both his brother, Francis, and his guardian, Isaac Marcombes.

Boyle returned to London in 1644 and, the following year, moved to Stalbridge in Dorset, settling into the manor that had passed to him as a bequest from his father and where he spent the following decade. He travelled regularly from Dorset to London where he was involved with a short-lived and obscure fraternity with utilitarian and utopian aims called the ‘Invisible College’.2 In 1649, he turned his attention to experimental investigations setting up a laboratory at Stalbridge, and from the early 1650s focussed on writing scientific treatises and conducting experiments. For the two years following the summer of 1652, Boyle spent the majority of his time in Ireland, where he was introduced to the dissection work of William Petty. Towards the end of this sojourn in Ireland, Boyle succumbed to some form of anasarca, developing complications which affected his eyesight, and after which he relied heavily in his work and correspondence upon the services of an amanuensis.

At the end of 1655 or beginning of 1656, Boyle moved to Oxford, where he became involved with the group of natural philosophers that had formed around Wadham College. It was in the university city, where he was to be created doctor of physic a decade later, that the rate of his experiments accelerated and included the renowned series involving the air pump. From 1659, Boyle’s work on medicine, natural philosophy, and religion were published with increasing frequency. His experiments with Robert Hooke, who was employed as his assistant, led to the exposition of what became known as ‘Boyle’s law’ in an appendix written in 1662 to his work New Experiments Physio-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects that had been published two years previously. The work for which Boyle is best known, The Sceptical Chymist: or Chymico-Physical Doubts & Paradoxes, appeared in 1661.

Boyle moved to London in 1668 and lived with his sister, Lady Katherine Ranelagh, in a house in Pall Mall where he enjoyed his own rooms and a laboratory. Following a stroke in 1670, his participation in the Royal Society meetings lessened, although his publications — on scientific theories, alchemy, theology, medicine, and chymistry continued apace despite deepening worries concerning his own health. Boyle died on 31 December 1691, just eight days after the death of his sister, Katherine, and was buried in the chancel of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.


Partners and Additional Contributors

The metadata for this calendar of Boyle’s correspondence was contributed to EMLO by the Electronic Enlightenment Project, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, under the direction of Dr Robert McNamee, and by Professor Michael Hunter, the editor of Boyle’s correspondence, which was published in six volumes by Pickering & Chatto in 2001 as part of ‘The Pickering Masters’ series.

Cultures of Knowledge would like to thank both Dr Robert McNamee and Mark Rogerson from the Electronic Enlightenment project, Professor Michael Hunter, and Sir Noel Malcolm. Thanks are due in addition to EMLO’s Digital Fellows Kat Steiner and Dr Lucy Hennings. Dr Philip Beeley kindly contributed invaluable advice and suggestions during the preparation of this introductory text.


Key Bibliographic Source(s)

The Correspondence of Robert Boyle, ed. Michael Hunter, Antonio Clericuzio, and Lawrence M Principe, 6 vols (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2001).

The Correspondence of Robert Boyle‘, in Electronic Enlightenment Scholarly Edition of Correspondence, ed. Robert McNamee, et al. Vers. 3.0. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. 2016. Web. 20 Aug. 2016.

Michael Hunter, ‘Supplement to the Correspondence of Robert Boyle. Revised and updated for 2017’ (The Robert Boyle Project, 2017).

Noel Malcolm, ‘The Boyle Correspondence: Some Unnoticed Items’, On the Boyle, No 7 (2005), pp. 1–12.

 


Contents

Details of the 1,759 letters published or calendared in the six-volume edition published by Michael Hunter, Antonio Clericuzio, and Lawrence M Principe (Pickering & Chatto, 2001) form the basis of this inventory in EMLO. To this core have been added the metadata of letters identified subsequently and published online at The Boyle Project as a supplement, in an article by Noel Malcolm, and by Maria Boxall and Michael Hunter.


Further resources

The correspondence of Robert Boyle forms part of the online collection of edited correspondence, Electronic Enlightenment.

An electronic version of The Correspondence of Robert Boyle, ed. Michael Hunter, Antonio Clericuzio, and Lawrence M Principe, 6 vols (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2001), is available from InteLex as part of its series The English Letters Collection.

A supplement of letters that have come to light since the printed edition of Boyle’s correspondence was published has been compiled by Michael Hunter and may be downloaded from The Robert Boyle Project.

A concordance between the letters in The Correspondence of Robert Boyle and Thomas Birch’s edition of letters to and from Boyle in his edition of Boyle’s Works (1744 and 1772) has been compiled by Michael Hunter and may be downloaded in .pdf format from The Robert Boyle Project.

Details of The Works of Robert Boyle, ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis, 14 vols (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999–2000) may be found on the The Robert Boyle Project, and an electronic version is available both on-line and as a CD version from InteLex as part of their Past Masters series. It is available in both on-line and CD versions.

 

An extensive and detailed bibliography, compiled by Michael Hunter, is available for consultation on The Robert Boyle Project, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Maria Boxall and Michael Hunter, ‘A Recently Discovered Boyle Letter of 1646, On the Boyle, No 10 (2017), pp. 1–6.

Michael Hunter, ‘Boyle, Robert (1627–1691), natural philosopher‘, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2015).

R. E. W. Maddison, The life of the Honourable Robert Boyle, F. R. S. (London, 1969).

Noel Malcolm, ‘The Boyle Correspondence: Some Unnoticed Items‘, On the Boyle, No 7 (2005), pp. 1–12.

 

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Footnotes

R. E. W. Maddison, The life of the Honourable Robert Boyle, F. R. S. (London, 1969), p. 11, note.

See the references in three of Boyle’s letters of 1647–7: Robert Boyle to Isaac Marcombes of 22 October 1646 (emlo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/w/955922); Robert Boyle to Francis Tallent of 20 February 1647 (emlo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/w/955930); and Robert Boyle to Samuel Hartlib of 8 May 1647 (emlo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/w/955948).