Robert Boyle: Inventions, Atomic Theory & Discoveries

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  • 0:03 Who Was Robert Boyle?
  • 1:00 Experimental Work
  • 2:31 Atomic Theory
  • 3:56 Inventions
  • 4:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

In the 17th century, Robert Boyle made groundbreaking advances in chemistry. In fact, there's even a law named after him: Boyle's Law. Boyle stressed the importance of experimental work, in contrast to the ideas of Aristotelianism.

Who Was Robert Boyle?

Robert Boyle was a famous chemist of the 17th century. Born in Ireland in 1627, he traveled to Europe as a young man and then moved to England as an adult. Boyle didn't actually begin his adult life as a chemist - he was profoundly religious and originally wanted to be a writer on ethics and virtue. But, in the 1640s, his focus took a dramatic turn.

Boyle set up a private laboratory at his house and took an enthusiastic interest in chemical experimentations and the idea of atoms. About 15 years later, he moved to Oxford to work with a group of natural philosophers, where he worked with other scientists, including his assistant Robert Hooke. In 1660, he became one of 11 founding members of the Royal Society, an experimental group based in London that still exists today. He died in 1691, at the age of 64.

Experimental Work

As a scientist, Boyle valued experimentation and empirical observation. This put him at odds with Aristotelianism, the prevailing theory of the day. Aristotelianism is named after the Greek philosopher Aristotle, although it's dubious how faithfully Aristotle's thought was actually followed by 17th century Aristotelians.

In Boyle's day, Aristotelian thinkers put a strong emphasis on theory and abstract reasoning rather than empirically demonstrable facts. In learning about the natural world, theory often came first, and then facts were fit to the theory instead of the other way around. Today, this seems like it shouldn't even be called science, but at the time, it was the way discoveries were made.

Boyle completely rejected that approach. Rather than coming up with an abstract theory and then doing experiments to get the results he wanted, Boyle started with rigorous experimental work and careful observation of the results. In his scientific books, he provided detailed descriptions of his experiments, hoping that other people would repeat them and confirm his findings.

Boyle was not particularly concerned about theories and systems, and in fact ,he never came up with his own unified theory of chemistry, preferring to only draw the conclusions that were justified from his empirical observations. Boyle wrote constantly about science, philosophy, and theology for his entire life. He didn't see these subjects as separate - in Boyle's view, science was the study of the natural world that God created.

Atomic Theory

Boyle is known for his insistence on mechanical explanations for natural phenomena. He rejected Aristotelian theories based on ideas like the four elements (earth, water, fire, and air). Instead, he thought that everything was made of 'certain primitive and simple, or perfectly unmingled bodies...not being made of any other bodies, or of one another' - or in other words, atoms.

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