King's College London
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To scrutinize the whole of Nature: The Royal Society and its fellows 1660-1730

Boyle's air-pump

Boyle's air pump as depicted in The works of the Honourable Robert Boyle. London: printed for A. Millar, 1744 [Rare Books Collection FOL. QC3 BOY]Boyle's air pump as depicted in The works of the Honourable Robert Boyle. London: printed for A. Millar, 1744 [Rare Books Collection FOL. QC3 BOY]Robert Boyle (1627-91), both as a polymath and as a landed gentleman, could be said to personify the early decades of the Royal Society, of which he was a founding Fellow.

In his prolific writings he not only recorded in much detail the experiments which he performed at the Royal Society, with his assistant Robert Hooke, but elaborated his contribution to the philosophy and methodology of science, which rests on the principle that all scientific theorising should depend on a process of experimentation and hypothesis. He contributed to the development of chemistry as a serious discipline, which would reject the occult concerns of alchemy and would be more than an auxiliary to the apothecary’s craft.

Boyle owes much of his fame to his research on the qualities of air. The air pump, shown here, which he did not invent but developed, is associated with his two famous discoveries: that vacuums can exist in nature and that the pressure of air is in inverse proportion to its volume (Boyle’s Law). He also came close to discovering oxygen when he showed that life, like a flame, depends on air. The rather temperamental air pump with which these experiments were conducted consisted of a large glass receiver with a four-inch opening at the top through which experimental apparatus could be inserted. A brass cylinder with milled valves, in which a sucker could be made to rise and fall by turning a handle attached to a geared ratchet, was mounted on a wooden frame below the receiver. A stop-cock was inserted at the bottom of the receiver and a valve at the top of the cylinder.

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