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Boyle, Robert

Category: Scientist

Robert Boyle after Johann Kerseboom

oil on canvas, (circa 1689-1690) NPG

Robert Boyle, FRS, (25 January 1627 – 31 December 1691) was an Anglo-Irish ‘natural philosopher’, chemist and inventor born in Lismore, County Waterford, Ireland.

Boyle is largely regarded today as one of the founders of modern chemistry. He is best known for Boyle's law, which describes the inversely proportional relationship between the absolute pressure and volume of a gas, if the temperature is kept constant within a closed system.

He discovered the part taken by air in the propagation of sound, investigated the expansive force of freezing water, investigated specific gravities and refractive powers, crystals, electricity, colour, and hydrostatics.

The search for transcendence

Although many descriptions explore Boyle's interest in theology, few explore Boyle's search for transcendence.  In order to understand this, we might start with the "wish list" Boyle made of 24 inventions which he was pursuing or which he thought should be pursued.  They make fascinating reading.  They include:

  • the"prolongation of life"
  • the "art of flying"
  • "perpetual light",
  • "making armour light and extremely hard",
  • "a ship to sail with all winds, and a ship not to be sunk",
  • "practicable and certain way of finding longitudes",
  • "potent drugs to alter or exalt imagination, waking, memory and other functions and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc".
The first drug taker to be honoured on a stamp?

Let us look at these with our physical and spiritual caps on. 
 - The prolongation of life to Boyle would have been a spiritual pursuit. 
 - The ‘art of flying’ is out of body experience, or levitation
  - Perpetual light is actually perpetual Light, meaning continual illumination - constant inspiration, wisdom and help from the spirit world. 
 - Armour is symbolic and Boyle knew this, one can take this physically or spiritually.
 - Ships are symbolic as are winds, and again this could be spiritual and physical. 
 - Longitudes can be both spiritual and physical but relate to the matrix of the body

Perhaps absolutely key is the last sentence of all – he wanted to invent drugs to give you a spiritual experience.  However much our more materialistic members of society try to interpret this sentence, you cannot ignore what it is saying. 

Robert Boyle was an alchemist – a spiritual alchemist and a chemical alchemist and here we can see him trying to align the two.  He believed in the symbolic transmutation of metals and carried out experiments in the hope of achieving it.  But much spiritual alchemy is intended to be sex based and it seems that he was unable to get this to work, so in desperation he turned to drugs as the answer – a move that has numerous direct parallels in today’s world and the past.  Those who failed at Tantric sex, smoked opium.

Boyle's 'self-flowing flask', a symbol of

the kundalini experience and similar

alchemically to the ouroboros

His book on the subject was The Sceptical Chymist, published in 1661, in which he criticised the "experiments whereby vulgar Spagyrists are wont to endeavour to evince their Salt, Sulphur and Mercury to be the true Principles of Things." In other words, since I was unable to evoke a kundalini experience, I think there are other chemical ways. 

Boyle as alchemist – Louis Trenchard More
In February 1675/6 Boyle sent a communication to the Royal Society with the title ‘an experimental discourse of quicksilver growing hot with gold’.  This paper excited wide interest among the members because, while the author did not claim to have accomplished the projection of gold, he boldly asserted he had so purified quicksilver that it approached the Hermetic prima materia, and consequently he was in sight of a solution of the problem of transmutation.  Such a confident assertion by Boyle, … carried great weight.
Boyle stated in this paper that as early as 1652 he had, by God’s blessing, obtained a mercury from quicksilver which when he mixed it with pure and pulverised gold in the palm of his hand, the paste quickly became appreciably hot….. But he confessed that he had not attained to pure projection.

an impressive set of flasks but a very small beaker

The symbolism in alchemy was clever, was it not?  No one would guess that this might refer to peaking as a method and that with it he had not been able to project – go out of body.

Those, then and now, who were uninterested in spiritual matters found it puzzling that someone as clever and competent as Boyle should be spending so much time trying to manipulate metals, when most knew that these were elements, you cannot turn one physical metal into another.  Indeed much criticism was heaped upon those who appeared to try.  But the transformation of symbolic Metals is perfectly feasible and had been done a number of times.  It was just not that easy.

Boyle presumably got so frustrated at getting near to having the kundalini experience and going out of body, that he decided to try the overload, short cut way – drugs  - and it is through his playing with drugs that we have our first Irish chemist.

One thing that surfaces from the biographies of those at the time was that the pursuit of the spiritual was almost an obsession.  Perhaps one should more correctly say the pursuit of an ‘experience’, as the objectives of some of the searchers was merely pursuit after the effects, much as it is today.  Furthermore, again like today, the principle places of experimentation were the universities.


There are a number of ways in which gases, controlled breathing and breath holding, as well as crystal gazing can provoke spiritual experiences – nitrous oxide which Sir Humphry Davy played with a hundred or so years later is one example of a gas as is the use of Carbon dioxide.  None of these techniques could be called ‘safe’, however, it appears that Boyle, frustrated with his lack of success at alchemy decided to go this route, to quote “He studied the chemistry of …. respiration, and conducted experiments in physiology, where, however, he was hampered by the tenderness of his nature".

All this may sound preposterous, but why should we imagine that the youth of four centuries ago is any different from the youth of today?  The search for transcendence appears to be one that has been universal and continuous.  And out of Boyle’s search for transcendence we get Boyle’s law – a law which he only mentioned as an afterthought.

“It was only whilst answering the objections made by a Jesuit to his experiments, that Boyle made his first mention of the law that the volume of a gas varies inversely to the pressure of the gas. The person who originally formulated the hypothesis was Henry Power in 1661”.

Boyle's law and mutual pumping

In addition to natural philosophy, Boyle ‘devoted much time to theology’, showing ‘a very decided leaning to the practical side’ and 'an indifference to controversial polemics'. In other words, he was trying to make sense of all the revelations.

In reading the following ‘natural philosophy’ is in effect spiritual experience by whatever means is most appropriate and ‘natural’. 

Encyclopedia Brittanica - Robert Boyle; Anglo-Irish philosopher and writer- Written by: Lawrence M. Principe

Boyle spent much of 1652–54 in Ireland overseeing his hereditary lands…. In 1654 he was invited to Oxford, and he took up residence at the university from c. 1656 until 1668. In Oxford he was exposed to the latest developments in natural philosophy and became associated with a group of notable natural philosophers and physicians, including John Wilkins, Christopher Wren, and John Locke. These individuals, together with a few others, formed the “Experimental Philosophy Club,” which at times convened in Boyle’s lodgings.
Much of Boyle’s best-known work dates from this period. In 1659 he and Robert Hooke, the clever inventor and subsequent curator of experiments for the Royal Society, completed the construction of their famous air pump and used it to study pneumatics. Their resultant discoveries regarding air pressure and the vacuum appeared in Boyle’s first scientific publication, New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air and Its Effects (1660). Boyle and Hooke discovered several physical characteristics of air, including its role in combustion, respiration, and the transmission of sound. One of their findings, published in 1662, later became known as “Boyle’s law.” Other natural philosophers, including Henry Power and Richard Towneley, concurrently reported similar findings about air.


turning the handle to open the crown

So, some of the most important scientific discoveries we have made, were discovered by people whose means of inspiration were either alchemical [sex] or drug and chemical based.

It is worth adding that most of his ideas outside the direct work of his chemical experiments on himself were somewhat bizarre.  Boyle concluded, for example, that Adam and Eve were originally white and that Caucasians could give birth to different coloured races.  There is one theory, however, which appears to have arisen from revelation

Encyclopedia Brittanica - Robert Boyle; Anglo-Irish philosopher and writer- Written by: Lawrence M. Principe
Boyle’s scientific work is characterized by its reliance on experiment and observation ….. He advocated a philosophy that saw the universe as a huge clock or wheel in which all natural phenomena were accountable by clockwork motion. His contributions to chemistry were based on a brand of atomism which claimed that everything was composed of minute (but not indivisible) ‘particles’ [atoms]  of a single universal matter [energy] and that these particles were only differentiable by their shape and motion [ active functions].

Lismore castle


Boyle was born in Lismore Castle, in County Waterford, Ireland, the seventh son and fourteenth child of Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork.

Richard Boyle had amassed enormous landholdings by the time Robert was born. As a child, Boyle was fostered to a local family, as were his elder brothers. Consequently, the eldest of the Boyle children had had exposure to the Irish language and the Celtic influence.

Boyle received private tutoring in Latin, Greek and French, and when he was eight years old, following the death of his mother, he was sent to Eton College in England. After spending over three years at Eton, Robert travelled abroad with a French tutor. They visited Italy in 1641 and remained in Florence during the winter of that year studying the "paradoxes of the great star-gazer" Galileo Galilei, who was elderly but still living in 1641.  The paradoxes were those created by the split between astrology and astronomy, pursuits that at one time were one.

Stalbridge was a significant property before
its demolition

Boyle returned to England from continental Europe in mid-1644. His father had died the previous year and had left him the manor of Stalbridge in Dorset, England and substantial estates in County Limerick in Ireland that he had acquired. From that time, Robert devoted his life to 'scientific research' [in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Byron] and soon took a prominent place in the band of enquirers, known as the "Invisible College", who devoted themselves to the 'cultivation of the new philosophy". They met frequently in London, often at Gresham College, and some of the members also had meetings at Oxford.

Having made several visits to his Irish estates beginning in 1647, Robert moved to Ireland in 1652 but became frustrated at his inability to make progress in his ‘chemical work’. In one letter, he described Ireland as "a barbarous country where chemical spirits were so misunderstood and chemical instruments so unprocurable that it was hard to have any Hermetic thoughts in it."

A strange sentence is it not?  Hermetic thoughts?  We could paraphrase this and say you can’t get the ingredients to make drugs for spiritual experience in Ireland.

A 1768 painting of  Robert Boyle's  1660 bird in vacuum experiments,
by English artist Joseph Wright.  Symbolic or actual?  Probably both

In 1654, Boyle left Ireland for Oxford. An inscription can be found on the wall of University College, Oxford the High Street at Oxford, marking the spot where Boyle rented rooms from the wealthy apothecary who owned the Hall.

Reading in 1657 of Otto von Guericke's air pump, he set himself with the assistance of Robert Hooke to devise improvements in its construction, and with the result, the "machina Boyleana" or "Pneumatical Engine", finished in 1659, he began a series of experiments on the properties of air. An account of Boyle's work with the air pump was published in 1660 under the title New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects.

Among the critics of the views put forward in this book was a Jesuit, Francis Line (1595–1675), who appeared to know all too well what was going on.  Being a Jesuit he was none too happy on people having spiritual experiences via drugs [and apparently succeeding].


In 1663 the Invisible College became The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, and the charter of incorporation granted by Charles II of England named Boyle a member of the council. In 1680 he was elected president of the society, but declined the honour from a 'scruple about oaths'.

It was during his time at Oxford that Boyle was a Chevalier. The Chevaliers are thought to have been established by royal order a few years before Boyle's time at Oxford. The early part of Boyle's residence was marked by the actions of the victorious parliamentarian forces, consequently this period marked the most secretive period of Chevalier movements and thus 'little is known about Boyle's involvement beyond his membership'.

taking the left handed path

In 1668 he left Oxford for London where he resided at the house of his elder sister Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh, in Pall Mall. His contemporaries widely acknowledged Katherine's influence on his work, but later historiographies dropped her from the record. Theirs was "a lifelong intellectual partnership, where brother and sister shared medical remedies, promoted each other’s scientific ideas, and edited each other’s manuscripts."

In 1689 [aged 62] his health, never very strong, began to fail seriously and he gradually withdrew from his public engagements, ceasing his communications to the Royal Society, and advertising his desire to be excused from receiving guests, "unless upon occasions very extraordinary".

In the leisure time he thus gained, he wished to "recruit his spirits, range his papers", and “prepare some important chemical investigations” which he proposed to leave "as a kind of Hermetic legacy to the studious disciples of that Art".

His health became still worse in 1691, and he died on 31 December that year.  Boyle died from paralysis. I wonder which drug he was using at the time to produce this?  Well, he certainly got to see his spirits anyway.  Drug taking is not a pursuit for the weak of constitution.

Encyclopedia Brittanica - Robert Boyle; Anglo-Irish philosopher and writer- Written by: Lawrence M. Principe
Throughout his adult life, Boyle was sickly, suffering from weak eyes and hands, recurring illnesses, and one or more strokes. He died at age 64 after a short illness exacerbated by his grief over Katherine’s death a week earlier.


 If one reads the list of some of his experiments in the light of the possible mechanisms of spiritual experience it is an extraordinary list

  • 1660 – New Experiments Physico-Mechanical: Touching the Spring of the Air and their Effects – Inhaling gases
  • 1663 and 1671 – Considerations touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy – sexual stimulation, sex magick, peaking
  • 1665 – New Experiments and Observations upon Cold - Hypothermia
  • 1666 – Origin of Forms and Qualities according to the Corpuscular Philosophy. This description of a viper in a vacuum was the first recorded description of decompression sickness – Inhaling gases.
  • 1672 – Origin and Virtues of Gems – Using crystal and crystal balls
  • 1686 – A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature - Peaking
  • 1690 – Medicina Hydrostatica – Taking drugs
text and picture from Alchemy and Mysticism - Alexander Roob


Among his religious and philosophical writings were:

  • 1648/1660 – Seraphic Love, written in 1648, but not published until 1660 – Divine love and love with visualisation
  • 1665 – Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects, which was ridiculed by Swift in Meditation Upon a Broomstick, and by Butler in An Occasional Reflection on Dr Charlton's Feeling a Dog's Pulse at Gresham College
  • 1675 – Some Considerations about the Reconcileableness of Reason and Religion, with a Discourse about the Possibility of the Resurrection