Genius Eclipsed: The Fate of Robert Boyle

The natural philosopher and scientist Robert Boyle was revered in his time for his pioneering enquiry into a wide range of natural phenomena.Yet within half a century of his death he was almost forgotten, overshadowed by his contemporary Isaac Newton. Michael Hunter explains why.

In April 1733 the Gentleman’s Magazine announced a competition to celebrate the installation of a bust of the natural philosopher, Robert Boyle (1627-91), in the Hermitage, a structure erected in the royal gardens at Richmond by Queen Caroline,wife of George II. The Hermitage was ‘very Gothique, being a Heap of Stones thrown into a very artful Disorder, and curiously embellished with Moss and Shrubs, to represent rude Nature’. Inside it were busts of four contemporary thinkers, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), John Locke (1632-1704), Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) and William Wollaston (1659-1724), and the bust of Boyle represented the finishing touch. It was placed ‘on a pedestal, in the inmost, and, as it were, the most sacred Recess of the Place; behind his Head a large Golden Sun, darting his wide spreading Beams all about, and towards the others, to whom his Aspect is directed’. It was literally Boyle’s apotheosis – the way he was placed in an apse with a sunburst behind him was reminiscent of Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of St Teresa’ – and no less striking was the arrangement of the ensemble so that he presided over his peers.

The Hermitage itself has long since disappeared, though the busts still survive, including the rather idealised image of Boyle that is now thought to be by the Italian sculptor, Giovanni Battista Guelfi.When constructed, however, it powerfully expressed a view of Boyle as representing a pinnacle in recent English intellectual achievement – as a prolific and innovative scientist who at the same time illustrated the harmony between science and religion. In a series of seminal books, published between 1660 and his death in 1691, Boyle had done more than anyone to vindicate the study of nature by carefully controlled and fully recorded experiments; he was also one of the leading protagonists of the mechanical philosophy, the idea that everything in the world could be explained in terms of the interaction of matter and motion. Equally notable was the sheer breadth of his curiosity about natural phenomena, from the nature of colours or cold to that of the air (which he investigated with a vacuum pump, the subject of his first scientific book), and from hydrostatics or the structure of crystals to the workings of the human body. Boyle also insisted on the potential utility of scientific findings to all aspects of human life, the subject of one of his most successful books, Of the Usefulness of Natural Philosophy (1663-71).No less important were his profound writings about the philosophical aspects of science and the relations between God and nature.He powerfully exemplified almost every aspect of the ethos of science in his day.

But the adulation represented by the Hermitage was not to be repeated. It is symptomatic that, shortly afterwards, Boyle failed to find a place in another, comparable architectural composition – this one still extant – the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe in Buckinghamshire. The same was true a few years later when busts of various modern celebrities were commissioned for the library at Trinity College, Cambridge. Instead, in both cases the role of leading scientist was taken by Newton and Newton has dominated perceptions of the science of the period ever since, with particular reference to his famous Principia of 1687. Indeed,Newton’s name has become such a byword for the science of his day that, for many, contemporaries like Boyle are hardly remembered at all. The biography that I have just published is the first to appear for 40 years and only the fifth since Boyle’s death.Newton, by contrast, has been the subject of an almost endless flow of biographical studies.How, therefore, can one account for the rapid eclipse of Boyle in 18th-century English culture and for the accompanying dominance of Newton that has continued ever since?

At the outset it is worth noting that this was not the result of malice. The case of Boyle is quite unlike that of his one-time employee, Robert Hooke (1635- 1703),who graduated from being Boyle’s assistant to become curator of experiments for the Royal Society and one of the leading scientific minds of his day. For Hooke had the temerity (or misfortune) to challenge Newton’s claims to originality in some of his findings concerning celestial dynamics and this led Newton not only to delete Hooke’s name from the proofs of the Principia but to downplay his memory thereafter, possibly resulting in the loss of the only known portrait of him.Hooke showed a rather jealous disposition towards many: indeed, the recently rediscovered ‘Hooke Folio’, now owned by the Royal Society, provides occasional evidence of his resentment even of his mentor, Boyle. But his dispute with Newton overshadows such minor disharmonies and Newton’s vindictive response undoubtedly contributed to the neglect to which Hooke was subject for centuries, so that only in recent years has justice at last begun to be done to his extraordinary achievements.

Towards Boyle, on the other hand,Newton seems always to have been intellectually deferential. It is perhaps worth noting that, since the Principia was published only a few years before Boyle’s death, there had not in any case yet been time for Newton to emerge as a potential rival during his lifetime.We know that Boyle was given a copy of the Principia on publication, though his views on it are not recorded. Earlier, Boyle had played a key role in Newton’s intellectual development. The extant notebooks from Newton’s formative years reveal that Boyle, along with Descartes, was the principal influence on the young Newton.His assiduous study of Boyle’s Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours (1664) seems to have started the line of enquiry that led to his revolutionary theory about the nature of light, first divulged in Philosophical Transactions in 1672 and more fully explored in his Opticks in 1704. Equally important was his study of Boyle’s Origin of Forms and Qualities (1666), partly because it exposed him to Boyle’s most programmatic exposition of the mechanical philosophy, but partly because, in the course of this, Boyle invoked experimental data of an unmistakably alchemical nature and it may well have been this that initially aroused Newton’s interest in alchemy.

Boyle’s Law states that the relationship between the volume of a gas and the pressure that it is under is a constant. Boyle enunciated the law in 1662 in A Defence of the Doctrine Touching the Spring and Weight of the Air, Propos’d by Mr R. Boyle in his New Physico-Mechanical Experiments; Against the Objections of Franciscus Linus. In formulating the law, Boyle drew on the findings of two other natural philosophers, Richard Towneley (1629-1707) and Henry Power (1623-68), and he conducted the experiments that vindicated it in conjunction with his assistant, Robert Hooke. But it is to Boyle himself rather than to any of these that the law is rightly attributed, and there is even less reason to attribute it to the French scientist Edmé Marriotte (c.1620-84), whose findings on the subject were first published over a decade later in Newton’s subsequent contacts with Boyle revolved primarily around their shared alchemical interests, for both men aspired to achieve the higher mysteries of alchemy,whatever reservations Boyle might have expressed about vulgar practitioners of chemistry in his famous Sceptical Chymist (1661) and despite the fact that the approach to alchemy of the two men differed, Newton’s being more bookish while Boyle’s was almost exclusively experimental. First, there was the notorious episode in 1676 when Boyle published in the Philosophical Transactions his findings about a mysterious mercury which grew hot when mixed with gold and Newton contacted the editor,Henry Oldenburg, to warn how this was a secret ‘not to be communicated without immense dammage to the world if there should be any verity in the Hermetick writers’. The same shared interests had a more positive result three years later when Newton wrote a letter to Boyle. This letter displays an almost uncanny intensity which struck me when I came into contact with it a few years ago as a newly released manuscript in the Macclesfield Collection at Cambridge University Library (it had otherwise hardly been seen since the 18th century). In it Newton argued for a ‘certain secret principle in nature’ which allowed some substances to mix together while others would not, anticipating the seminal Query 31 in the second edition of the Opticks (1717) which attributed crucial powers to particles of matter.He also speculated on the role of aether in the atmosphere, not least in producing gravitation, foreshadowing some of the concepts underlying the Principia.

Thereafter, Boyle and Newton communicated further about alchemical matters. Boyle even intended to bequeath to ‘Mr Newton the Mathematician of Cambridge’ an erudite Latin alchemical treatise, though his executors overlooked this instruction and the manuscript remains in Boyle’s archive.After Boyle’s death,Newton approached John Locke,who had been given responsibility for examining Boyle’s chemical manuscripts, in search of part of an alchemical secret that interested him: in the exchange with Locke that followed Newton revealed that a certain ‘reservedness’ had existed between him and Boyle on the matter, both of them withholding crucial information from the other. On the other hand, this was probably typical of the relations between alchemical enthusiasts at the time and there is no evidence that it left any lasting legacy of resentment towards Boyle on Newton’s part.

The problem for Boyle’s reputation started as Newton began to be acclaimed as a scientific genius, particularly for the comprehensive solution to the problems of celestial mechanics represented by his Principia, already acclaimed by the biographer, John Aubrey, before his death in 1697 as ‘the greatest highth of Knowledge that humane nature has yet arrived to’. Ironically, this initially occurred through an institution that had been founded under the provisions of Boyle’s will, the Boyle Lectures, and particularly the very first series delivered in 1692 by the scholar and divine, Richard Bentley (1662-1742). Though Bentley did not neglect Boyle, his lectures have rightly been seen as significant for the space they devoted to an exposition of the findings of ‘that very excellent and divine Theorist Mr. Isaac Newton, to whose most admirable sagacity and industry we shall frequently be obliged’. Newton’s pre-eminence was further intensified by the acclaim for his experimental findings concerning light and related phenomena in his equally seminal Opticks when this came out in 1704. Indeed, in a sense this was more of a threat to Boyle than the Principia since, in contrast to the mathematical abstrusities of Newton’s first book, this presented Newton as a champion of hands-on experiment,which had the effect of rendering a key facet of Boyle’s role superfluous. Only Boyle’s legendary piety retained its exemplary value, especially as rumours circulated about the extent of Newton’s questionable orthodoxy on religious matters.

The process by which Newton’s scientific reputation grew as Boyle’s declined was accelerated by the extent to which it became modish to invoke Newton on natural philosophical issues in the early 18th century, something that even Boyle’s supporters unwittingly abetted. Thus, in a perceptive life of Boyle mainly written in the first decade of the early 18th century but unfortunately never completed or published, the scholar William Wotton explained how Boyle would have made better sense of certain of his findings with his celebrated vacuum pump had he been aware of the Newtonian concept of attraction:

But the Discovery of that general Law of Matter was not then known, that was reserved to the incomparable Sir Isaac Newton to find out.

Similarly, in the most important version of Boyle’s writings to be published at this time, produced in 1725 by the scientific writer and lecturer, Peter Shaw, it was repeatedly emphasised how Boyle’s discoveries had been furthered and enhanced by Newton,‘whose words we can never use too much’. In his notes Shaw is repeatedly to be found exclaiming how ‘This doctrine cannot be better illustrated, confirm’d and improv’d, than by the words of that incomparable philosopher Sir Isaac Newton.’

To some extent there may have been an element of political correctness in this: undue praise for Boyle might have been seen as implicit criticism of his successor and it is certainly the case that Newton’s chief continental rival, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), championed what he claimed to be Boyle’s version of the mechanical philosophy against Newton’s theory of matter. (This cannot have helped Boyle in the fervently Newtonian atmosphere of Augustan England.) Probably more important, however, was the extent to which this was the result of the innate presentism to which science was as prone then as it has been ever since – of Boyle simply seeming out of date in terms of the recent developments in science for which Newton and his followers were responsible.As one commentator, John Weyland, put it in 1808:

I have not the slightest intention to undervalue the acknowledged importance of Mr Boyle’s physical discoveries; considering the state of science at the time he lived, they are unquestionably highly creditable to his industry, and ingenuity, and are the steps by which the subsequent philosophers have ascended. But it is perfectly well known, that the modern discoveries have extremely reduced the value of all ancient speculations in natural philosophy, have indeed placed them very much upon the footing of exploded errors.

In the case of Boyle and Newton, however, it might be argued that more was at stake than this and that Boyle was the victim of a crucial shift in expectations concerning the proper nature of science,with a new paradigm emerging in the image of Newton which discredited the entire style of science that had preceded him and which Boyle had exemplified so fully. Boyle’s writings are voluminous, prolix and disorganised. He was even reluctant to countenance a collected edition of them during his lifetime, though this situation was rectified by epitomes like Shaw’s and subsequently by the multi-volume edition produced by Thomas Birch in 1744 – though it seems likely that copies of the latter were purchased more as imposing library furniture than to be read. It was partly in order to rectify the often rather diffuse and miscellaneous character of Boyle’s writings that in his version Shaw attempted to ‘methodise’ Boyle’s work, demonstrating how it could be seen to deal with the phenomena of nature in a systematic way and thus making it seem more properly ‘philosophical’.

By contrast, Newton’s Opticks – the work by Boyle’s successor that was most likely to be compared with his – has always rightly been acclaimed for its brilliant combination of range and succinctness. Insofar as it included broader and more speculative ideas these appeared as a concluding series of ‘Queries’ (extended in the second edition), whereas the core of the work was set out in quasi-mathematical style as a series of ‘propositions’, preceded by an even more analytical series of ‘definitions’ and ‘axioms’. Such a structure was even more overt in the Principia, where it was accompanied by a formidable mathematical complexity to which Boyle was an almost complete stranger. (Though fascinated by quantification as a scientific tool, Boyle was distrustful of the higher forms of mathematics, which he thought involved a degree of idealisation that made them remote from reality.) In Opticks, however, Newton made such a mode of presentation equally appropriate in relation to experimental data and this stood in stark contrast to the often rather discursive style of the treatises of a man like Boyle.

There was also a contrast in intellectual style and this is true not only of Boyle but also of his contemporaries like Hooke. Boyle was fascinated by almost everything: his workdiaries, the compendia of empirical and other data that he kept throughout his career, show him carrying out experiments on an extraordinary range of phenomena while also recording information from travellers on everything from atmospheric conditions to strange animals and he drew on such data in his publications on related subjects. Hooke displayed a similarly wide curiosity, on topics ranging from comets to the art of navigation, from the nature of light to petrifaction and fossils. This is wellexemplified by his most famous book, Micrographia (1665),which, quite apart from the stunning exposition of the findings of the microscope for which it is famous, also included speculations on all sorts of topics, even including the surface of the moon. Indeed, to a contemporary of Hooke’s like John Aubrey this sheer fecundity was one of the chief marks of his genius. By comparison,Newton was more singleminded, concentrating on the solution of great but finite problems – of celestial mechanics or of the nature of light – and the implication was to make his predecessors seem like dilettantes, incapable of the profound insights that rewarded the intensity of the scrutiny in which he engaged.

There is a further corollary to this in terms of philosophical outlook, in that such singlemindedness on Newton’s part was combined with a perhaps slightly arrogant conviction that God had vouchsafed to him and a select few an ability to penetrate the secrets of the universe which lesser mortals lacked. Boyle, on the other hand, preached a general humility concerning the ability of mankind as a whole to penetrate the full profundity of God’s design in the universe. This difference, too, arguably had an indirect influence on the scientific paradigm that Newton bequeathed to posterity.

In such contrasts there is inevitably an element of caricature. In fact, much 18th-century natural philosophy remained quite Boylean in spirit and some of Boyle’s speculations on a wide range of topics – from the temperature of the submarine regions to the effect of the environment on human health – had an influence that lasted perhaps surprisingly long. But there can be no question that it was not just the modish championship of Newtonian ideas that had the effect of encouraging Boyle’s memory to fade in the 18th century, but also the triumph of a new image of science in the Newtonian mould – a vision, not of endless curiosity about how the world worked and how it might be improved, but of the relentless pursuit of truth by a remote and single-minded genius.

Further reading:

  • Michael Hunter, ‘Robert Boyle and the Dilemma of Biography in the Age of the Scientific Revolution’, in Michael Shortland and Richard Yeo (eds.), Telling Lives in Science: Essays on Scientific Biography (Cambridge University Press, 1996)
  • Michael Hunter, Robert Boyle (1627-91): Scrupulosity and Science (Boydell, 2000)
  • Jan W. Wojcik, ‘Pursuing Knowledge: Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton’, and Lawrence M. Principe, ‘The Alchemies of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton’, in Margaret J. Osler (ed.), Rethinking the Scientific Revolution (CUP, 2000)
  • Rob Iliffe, Newton: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • B.J.T. Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy (CUP, 1975)
  • Gerd Buchdahl, The Image of Newton and Locke in the Age of Reason (Sheed and Ward, 1961)
  • Patricia Fara, Newton: the Making of Genius (Pan Macmillan, 2002).
  • For Boyle’s workdiaries online, see the Lives & Letters project.

Michael Hunter is Professor of History, Birkbeck, University of London. His book Boyle: Between God and Science is published by Yale University Press.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week