A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter X
The successors of Galileo in physical science
Robert Boyle  (1627-1691)
Some of Robert Boyle's views as to the possible structure of atmospheric air will be considered a little farther on in this chapter, but for the moment we will take up the consideration of some of his experiments upon that as well as other gases. Boyle was always much interested in alchemy, and carried on extensive experiments in attempting to accomplish the transmutation of metals; but he did not confine himself to these experiments, devoting himself to researches in all the fields of natural philosophy. He was associated at Oxford with a company of scientists, including Wallis and Wren, who held meetings and made experiments together, these gatherings being the beginning, as mentioned a moment ago, of what finally became the Royal Society. It was during this residence at Oxford that many of his valuable researches upon air were made, and during this time be invented his air-pump, now exhibited in the Royal Society rooms at Burlington House.[1]

His experiments to prove the atmospheric pressure are most interesting and conclusive. "Having three small, round glass bubbles, blown at the flame of a lamp, about the size of hazel-nuts," he says, "each of them with a short, slender stem, by means whereof they were so exactly poised in water that a very small change of weight would make them either emerge or sink; at a time when the atmosphere was of convenient weight, I put them into a wide-mouthed glass of common water, and leaving them in a quiet place, where they were frequently in my eye, I observed that sometimes they would be at the top of the water, and remain there for several days, or perhaps weeks, together, and sometimes fall to the bottom, and after having continued there for some time rise again. And sometimes they would rise or fall as the air was hot or cold."[2]

It was in the course of these experiments that the observations made by Boyle led to the invention of his "statical barometer," the mercurial barometer having been invented, as we have seen, by Torricelli, in 1643. In describing this invention he says: "Making choice of a large, thin, and light glass bubble, blown at the flame of a lamp, I counterpoised it with a metallic weight, in a pair of scales that were suspended in a frame, that would turn with the thirtieth part of a grain. Both the frame and the balance were then placed near a good barometer, whence I might learn the present weight of the atmosphere; when, though the scales were unable to show all the variations that appeared in the mercurial barometer, yet they gave notice of those that altered the height of the mercury half a quarter of an inch."[3] A fairly sensitive barometer, after all. This statical barometer suggested several useful applications to the fertile imagination of its inventor, among others the measuring of mountain-peaks, as with the mercurial barometer, the rarefication of the air at the top giving a definite ratio to the more condensed air in the valley.

Another of his experiments was made to discover the atmospheric pressure to the square inch. After considerable difficulty he determined that the relative weight of a cubic inch of water and mercury was about one to fourteen, and computing from other known weights he determined that "when a column of quicksilver thirty inches high is sustained in the barometer, as it frequently happens, a column of air that presses upon an inch square near the surface of the earth must weigh about fifteen avoirdupois pounds."[4] As the pressure of air at the sea-level is now estimated at 14.7304 pounds to the square inch, it will be seen that Boyle's calculation was not far wrong.

From his numerous experiments upon the air, Boyle was led to believe that there were many "latent qualities" due to substances contained in it that science had as yet been unable to fathom, believing that there is "not a more heterogeneous body in the world." He believed that contagious diseases were carried by the air, and suggested that eruptions of the earth, such as those made by earthquakes, might send up "venomous exhalations" that produced diseases. He suggested also that the air might play an important part in some processes of calcination, which, as we shall see, was proved to be true by Lavoisier late in the eighteenth century. Boyle's notions of the exact chemical action in these phenomena were of course vague and indefinite, but he had observed that some part was played by the air, and he was right in supposing that the air "may have a great share in varying the salts obtainable from calcined vitriol."[5]

Although he was himself such a painstaking observer of facts, he had the fault of his age of placing too much faith in hear-say evidence of untrained observers. Thus, from the numerous stories he heard concerning the growth of metals in previously exhausted mines, he believed that the air was responsible for producing this growth - in which he undoubtedly believed. The story of a tin-miner that, in his own time, after a lapse of only twenty-five years, a heap, of earth previously exhausted of its ore became again even more richly impregnated than before by lying exposed to the air, seems to have been believed by the philosopher.

As Boyle was an alchemist, and undoubtedly believed in the alchemic theory that metals have "spirits" and various other qualities that do not exist, it is not surprising that he was credulous in the matter of beliefs concerning peculiar phenomena exhibited by them. Furthermore, he undoubtedly fell into the error common to "specialists," or persons working for long periods of time on one subject - the error of over-enthusiasm in his subject. He had discovered so many remarkable qualities in the air that it is not surprising to find that he attributed to it many more that he could not demonstrate.

Boyle's work upon colors, although probably of less importance than his experiments and deductions upon air, show that he was in the van as far as the science of his day was concerned. As he points out, the schools of his time generally taught that "color is a penetrating quality, reaching to the innermost part of the substance," and, as an example of this, sealing-wax was cited, which could be broken into minute bits, each particle retaining the same color as its fellows or the original mass. To refute this theory, and to show instances to the contrary, Boyle, among other things, shows that various colors - blue, red, yellow - may be produced upon tempered steel, and yet the metal within "a hair's-breadth of its surface" have none of these colors. Therefore, he was led to believe that color, in opaque bodies at least, is superficial.

"But before we descend to a more particular consideration of our subject," he says, " 'tis proper to observe that colors may be regarded either as a quality residing in bodies to modify light after a particular manner, or else as light itself so modified as to strike upon the organs of sight, and cause the sensation we call color; and that this latter is the more proper acceptation of the word color will appear hereafter. And indeed it is the light itself, which after a certain manner, either mixed with shades or other-wise, strikes our eyes and immediately produces that motion in the organ which gives us the color of an object."[6]

In examining smooth and rough surfaces to determine the cause of their color, he made use of the microscope, and pointed out the very obvious example of the difference in color of a rough and a polished piece of the same block of stone. He used some striking illustrations of the effect of light and the position of the eye upon colors. "Thus the color of plush or velvet will appear various if you stroke part of it one way and part another, the posture of the particular threads in regard to the light, or the eye, being thereby varied. And 'tis observable that in a field of ripe corn, blown upon by the wind, there will appear waves of a color different from that of the rest of the corn, because the wind, by depressing some of the ears more than others, causes one to reflect more light from the lateral and strawy parts than another."[7] His work upon color, however, as upon light, was entirely overshadowed by the work of his great fellow-countryman Newton.

Boyle's work on electricity was a continuation of Gilbert's, to which he added several new facts. He added several substances to Gilbert's list of "electrics," experimented on smooth and rough surfaces in exciting of electricity, and made the important discovery that amber retained its attractive virtue after the friction that excited it bad ceased. "For the attrition having caused an intestine motion in its parts," he says, "the heat thereby excited ought not to cease as soon as ever the rubbing is over, but to continue capable of emitting effluvia for some time afterwards, longer or shorter according to the goodness of the electric and the degree of the commotion made; all which, joined together, may sometimes make the effect considerable; and by this means, on a warm day, I, with a certain body not bigger than a pea, but very vigorously attractive, moved a steel needle, freely poised, about three minutes after I had left off rubbing it."[8]





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.