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Robert Boyle

Legendary scientist and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon died in 1626, ironically the same year in which renowned chemist and one of the "fathers of photography," Robert Boyle was born in Lismore, Ireland on January 25, 1626. He was the seventh son and fourteenth child of Richard Boyle, the first Earl of Cork. After completing his studies at Eton College and in Geneva, Switzerland in 1644, he traveled to Italy with one of his instructors before returning to England and devoting himself exclusively to scientific experimentation.

From 1656 to 1668, Professor Boyle was a professor at Oxford, and conducted several experiments with a specially made air pump to explore air’s physical characteristics and its importance to breathing, sound transmission, and combustion. He also experimented with gas, and his Law of Boyle-Mariotte determined that when at a constant temperature, the pressure of a perfect gas is inversely proportional to its volume. During this time of frenetic scientific research and writing, Professor Boyle also served as the director of the East-Indian Company and became a founding member of the Royal Society.

Perhaps Professor Boyle's most lasting contributions were in the field of chemistry. His experiments transformed chemistry from alchemy superstitions into a legitimate science. Most notably, he disproved Aristotle’s contention that matter was composed of the elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and Paracelsus' hypothesis that the properties of matter were comprised of salt, sulphur, and mercury. Professor Boyle theorized that elements were matter particles that could not be divided further. Various materials are generated by primary particles or corpuscles that are determined by their number, positioning, and movement. His definition of elements was featured in his famous text, Sceptical Chymist (1661).

In "Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours" (1663), Professor Boyle stated that light consists of matter and that its warmth can be measured by weight. He also chronicled the complexities of his chemical experiments with color, which laid the scientific foundation for photography. In Experiment XXXVI, Professor Boyle followed up on the research of Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280), who in his studies on silver salts and their sensitivity to light, discovered that when silver nitrate darkens when it is exposed to sunlight. Professor Boyle confirmed these findings in a series of tests in which he noted how light changed silver chloride from white to black. However, he maintained that this blackening was not the result of light exposure, but rather contributed the color change to the effects of air and moisture.

Although one of its founders, when Professor Boyle was elected President of the Royal Society in 1680, he politely declined, preferring instead to concentrate on his research. His later years were immersed in theological studies, which included translating the New Testament into Irish and Turkish. In 1690, Professor Boyle revealed in "The Christian Virtuoso" that he believed that the Creator generated the laws of nature and that their properties could be scientifically analyzed. However, the human soul was separate from the particles that comprise body composition, and its immortality defied conventional natural laws. Married to his work, Robert Boyle spent the last two decades of his life living and working in London, which is where he died on December 30, 1691 at the age of sixty-five.


1870 Universal Pronouncing Dictionary of Biography and Mythology, Vol. I (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.), p. 421.

1824 A Biographical History of England: From Egbert the Great to the Revolution, Vol. V (London: William Baynes and Son), p. 84.

1998 A Philatelic Ramble Through Chemistry (Zurich, Switzerland: Verlag Helvetica Chimica Acta), p. 202.

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