Robert Boyle--Founder of Modern Chemistry
by John Hudson Tiner

Robert Boyle lived in the 1600s. He was the seventh son of the Great Earl of Cork, one of the richest men in the world. It troubled the Great Earl that his sons might become pampered and spoiled. To prevent this, he sent them to live with poor families. From age six months to age four years, Robert Boyle lived in the home of an Irish peasant family.

a flask containing chemicals After Robert returned to his home at Lismore Castle, Ireland, his father hired tutors to see to his early education. The lead tutor told him about the exciting changes that Galileo had brought to science.

When he became older, Robert studied at Eton in England. His science teachers avoided experiments. Instead, they simply looked for answers in ancient books. Robert believed future advances in science would come by experiments. His motto, nothing by mere authority, rejected the belief that he would find all answers in books by Greek philosophers.

To satisfy his interest in science, he moved to Oxford, England. Although he did not attend school there, he did begin meeting each week with a group of like-minded experimental scientists. They discussed the latest scientific discoveries. Robert called the group his invisible college.

With his brilliant assistant Robert Hooke, he built an improved air pump. Together they proved that sound does not carry in a vacuum. They confirmed Galileo's claim that without air resistance a feather and a lump of lead would fall at the same speed. He also showed that as the pressure on a gas increased, the volume decreased in a predictable way. He proved that air itself followed scientific laws.

Robert Boyle next turned to chemistry. Practically no progress had been made in that subject. Chemistry worked in secrecy because they hoped to find a way to make gold from cheaper metals. Robert urged his fellow scientists to report their experiments quickly and clearly so others might know of any new discovery.

Robert gave the modern definition of an element. An element, he wrote, is a substance that cannot be separated into simpler substances by chemical means. Two or more substances cannot be chemically combined to give an element. He believed chemists would never succeed in making gold. Countless experiments had failed to alter it in any way. A chemist could not separate gold into two or more different substances, nor could a chemist make gold by mixing other metals. Gold was an element.

Scientist working with chemical solutions Robert Boyle's definition of element made the book he wrote, The Skeptical Chemist, the most important book about chemistry ever published. Robert told about his experiments in an easy-to-read style. He did not try to impress people with difficult language.

A friend read one of his books. "You make the study of nature seem so simple," the friend said. Robert Boyle explained, "God would not have made the universe as it is unless He intended us to understand it."

Robert discovered a new element, phosphorus. It glowed in the dark and the heat of friction would set it afire. He put phosphorus to practical use to make the first match. He soaked paper in phosphorus and dipped a splinter of wood in sulfur. When he drew the splinter of sulfur-tipped wood across the paper, the match burst into flames.

Later he learned that others had discovered phosphorus. They did not share their discoveries because of the lack of communication. How could useful information be spread more quickly?

He remembered the invisible college. Such a group would be perfect. Robert and his fellow scientists petitioned Charles II. The king agreed to charter the group of scholars as the Royal Society of London. Robert and his friends became the first group of scientists to hold regular meetings. The Royal Society still meets today. Its motto is the same as Robert's: Nothing by mere authority.

Robert Boyle became famous as a scientist. In 1680, fellow scientists elected him president of the Royal Society. He turned down the office to devote more time to spreading the Gospel. Although Robert Boyle became famous, he remained a humble Christian. His interest in religion grew as time passed. Throughout his life, he read the Bible each morning. He learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and other biblical languages to better understand the word of God.

Robert Boyle was a humble Christian who radiated the love of God to those around him. When he did good works, it was out of sight of those he helped. The great fire of London in 1666 destroyed most of the main part of the city. The fire left a hundred thousand people homeless. Robert Boyle worked behind the scenes. He saw to it that they received food, clothing, and shelter. Most people never learned who had helped them.

Robert Boyle died in 1691. In his will, he provided for a series of lectures, not on science, but on the defense of Christianity against unbelievers. The Boyle lectures are still given today.

The king of England repeatedly offered Robert Boyle high government posts and titles. He could have become a nobleman, with a title such as duke, earl, or baron. However, he never cared for pomp, fame, or public office. Robert Boyle refused all titles. He preferred to be known as simply Mr. Robert Boyle, a Christian gentleman.

Today chemists honor Robert Boyle as the founder of modern chemistry. They consider him one of the ten greatest scientists of all time.

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, MarApr03.