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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XV. The Progress of Science

§ 15. Robert Boyle

Great as were the seventeenth century philosophers in the biological and medical sciences, they were paralleled if not surpassed by workers on the physical and mathematical side. Robert Boyle was, even as a boy of eighteen, one of the leaders in the comparatively new pursuit of experimental science. His first love was chemistry. “Vulcan has so transported and bewitched me as to make me fancy my laboratory a kind of Elysium,” thus he wrote in 1649. A few years later (1652–3), in Ireland, where he was called to look after the family estates, he found it “hard to have any Hermetic thoughts,” and occupied his mind with anatomy and confirming Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood. A year later, he settled at Oxford, where he arranged a laboratory and had as assistant Robert Hooke. Meetings were held alternately at Boyle’s lodgings and at John Wilkins’s lodge at Wadham, and were frequented by Seth Ward and Christopher Wren and by many others.

Stimulated by Otto von Guericke’s contrivance for exhausting air from a vessel, Boyle, aided by Hooke, invented what was called the “machina Boyliana,” which comprised the essentials of the air-pump of to-day. At this time, Boyle busied himself with the weight, with the pressure and with the elasticity of air—the part it played in respiration and in acoustics. Like Newton, he took a deep interest in theology, and not only spent considerable sums in translating the Bible into foreign tongues, but learnt Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and Chaldee so that he might read it at first hand. He was, indeed, a very notable character. Suffering under continued ill-health, with weak eyes, a slight stammer, and a memory treacherous to the last degree, he was yet one of the most helpful of friends and universally popular alike at the court of three kings, and in the society of men of letters, men of business and men of science. In spite of the fact that he was the first to distinguish a mixture from a compound, to define an element, to prepare hydrogen, though he did not recognise its nature, he had in him the touch of an amateur, but an amateur of genius. His style in writing was unusually prolix and he seldom followed out his discoveries to their ultimate end.