The Work-diaries of Robert Boyle:
an Introduction to the Internet edition

by Michael Hunter and Charles Littleton

1. General Introduction

1.1. What are Boyle's work-diaries?

This is the name that we have given to a coherent series of documents surviving in scattered form within the Boyle Papers at the Royal Society. Compiled by one of the most innovative and influential experimenters of the seventeenth century, Robert Boyle (1627-91), they comprise a series of notes on experiments, observations, measurements, reports from travellers and others, and extracts from books, dating from throughout Boyle's intellectual career. For a complete listing, see the Table of Contents.

This material has hitherto been largely overlooked because, when the Boyle Papers were bound up in their current form, it was scattered as randomly throughout the archive. The table of contents shows how the work-diaries are spread through over twenty separate volumes of the Boyle Papers, in no significant order whatsoever. Now, however, collected together, transcribed and ordered, they form a surprisingly homogeneous group. Mostly, they comprise sets of folded foolscap sheets, opening with headings such as 'Promiscuous Observations' or 'Philosophical Entrys & Memorialls', and comprising a series of self-contained entries varying in length from a line to over a page, written by Boyle or, more often, by one of his amanuenses (the commonest alterntaive format takes the form of small notebooks). The beginning of each series is often dated, sometimes with a significant date such as the beginning of the year or Boyle's own birthday (25 January), while individual entries within them also sometimes bear a date. In addition, these are often endorsed with retrospective comments on their subjectmatter, and are frequently numbered (again, often apparently retrospectively), usually in groups of 100 or 'centuries' - a concept that Boyle evidently derived from the author who inspired his collecting of natural historical data, Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, whose Sylva sylvarum (1627) was so arranged.

1.2. What periods do they cover, and how complete are they?

These notes span Boyle's career as a writer. The earliest survive from April 1647, when he was twenty years old, and a further dated series was begun just under a year later. There are then dated groups from various years in the early 1650s, while series dating from the later 1650s and from each subsequent decade in Boyle's life can be identified from internal dates and other clues. The last sequence, entitled 'The XVIII Century', has entries going up to August 1691, in other words only a few months before Boyle's death on 31 December that year.

However, it is clear that the sequence is far from continuous, thus bearing out Boyle's complaint in the broadsheet Advertisement...about the Loss of many of his Writings that he issued in 1688 how, when he came to 'review and range' his papers, he found that four or five Centuries of Experiments of my Own, and other Matters of Fact, which from time to time I had committed to Paper, as they were made and observ'd, and had been by way partly of a Diary, and partly of Adversaria' were missing, as were 'seven or eight Centuries of Notions, Remarks, Explications and Illustrations of divers things in Philosophy' which he had recorded (Works, xi, 169).

Certainly, there is a marked gap in the sequence of these documents between 1657 and 1662, although there is reason to believe that Boyle continued to compile such records during those years. That such diaries formerly existed is suggested by what are evidently recopied extracts from them in XXI: 204-6 (here and hereinafter, references to work-diaries are given in this form, i.e. the number that we have given to the work-diary in the Table of Contents, followed by the number(s) of the entries within it). The coverage is also patchy from the mid 1670s to the mid 1680s. Some of these gaps may reflect discontinuities in Boyle's practice in keeping such records, but others are undoubtedly due to losses, which could have occurred either during Boyle's lifetime (as implied by the remarks already quoted) or thereafter, in view of the subsequent vicissitudes that the Boyle Papers are known to have suffered. (See Letters and Papers, pp. xviiff.; Scrupulosity and Science, pp. 263ff.; 'Lost Papers').

1.3. What is the content of the work-diaries?

There are highly significant changes in content, notwithstanding the striking continuity in terms of presentation already noted. Initially, in the late 1640s, the work-diaries are literary. The principal component comprises extracts from the French chivalric romances that formed Boyle's staple reading during his adolescence, and which inspired various of his earliest writings (I-III; on this topic, see 'Virtuous Romance'). In addition, there are extracts from the English equivalent of this, in the form of extracts from the (then unpublished) Parthenissa by Boyle's elder brother, Roger Boyle, Lord Broghill (IV). There are also , evidently intended for later reuse in compositions of Boyle's own. At this point, the work-diaries are virtually indistinguishable from the commonplace books familiar to students of Renaissance literature (V). (In this connection, it is worth mentioning an even earlier survival, Boyle's student notebook compiled in Geneva in 1643, Royal Society MS 44, which includes 'Diverses Pieces. Sundry Peeces, Commencées Le Premier jour l'An 1643', which is discussed in 'Newly Discovered Boyle Documents').

In 1650, the content of the work-diaries changes decisively. The literary disappear, never to reappear, and instead the content of the diaries comprises recipes, mostly for herbal remedies for ailments from which Boyle and his friends suffered, supplied by such associates of Boyle's as Benjamin Worsley and Gerard Boate. It also gives hints on such topics as the 'luting' to be used in furnaces employed in chemical processes. Indeed, this complete shift in subjectmatter within a group of documents of similar format has been cited elsewhere as one of the most dramatic pieces of evidence of the change in Boyle's intellectual goals from literary to scientific that occurred c. 1650 (in M. Hunter, 'How Boyle became a Scientist', in Scrupulosity and Science, pp. 25-6). Similar diaries continue for much of the 1650s, comprising recipes and processes, sometimes in Latin and often identified as being derived from others, including the American alchemist, George Starkey, the Catholic virtuoso, Sir Kenelm Digby, and such members of the circle of the intelligencer, Samuel Hartlib, as Frederick Clodius and J.S. Küffeler (VI-XVIII). (As W.R. Newman and L.M. Principe show in Tried in the Fire, many passages in these work-diaries comprise Latin chemical processes, evidently copied by Boyle from Starkey's notes; but they are intriguingly interspersed by ancillary hints in English, as if Boyle was able to ask Starkey questions about the process in question and to write down his answers).

Such medical and chemical processes continue to form the main content of the texts into the late 1650s, up to the most significant gap in the series already noted. Moreover this lacuna is all the more noticeable because, when the series recommences in 1662, it is very different in nature (XIX). In particular, the records of experiments and processes have a quite different character from those of the work-diaries of the 1650s, being much more indulgently narrative in tone, much more explicit about the rationale of the experiment and the extent to which Boyle was or was not surprised by his findings. They are also more general in subjectmatter - evidently reflecting the influence on Boyle of his contact with the Oxford Experimental Philosophy Club from 1656 onwards (see Oxford Physiologists). They often record chemical and pneumatic experiments, reading very like those which Boyle had by this time begun to publish, most notably in his New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects (1660). It seems likely that this reflects a significant change in Boyle's intellectual personality brought about by the experience in writing and publishing that he acquired in the late 1650s and early 1660s. In addition, an appetite for exact mensuration now sets in that had not been in evidence earlier. It is also, incidentally, at this point that the word 'experiment' is first used in the work-diaries (XIX: 1).

The work-diaries of this period also differ from their predecessors in that three different types of diary appear to have been in progress in parallel, with largely but not wholly discrete subjectmatter. In addition to the texts already noted which mainly comprise Boyle's own experimental findings (XIX, XX, XXIII, XXV), we also have a series dedicated to extracts from his reading in travel books, earlier works of natural philosophy, and the like (a rather different type of reading from that of his adolescence). In particular, a long series in volume 8 of the Boyle Papers comprises material drawn from a variety of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century authors (XXII).

In addition, and again rather separate from Boyle's experimental notes (though such materials are occasionally juxtaposed), there are notes on interviews that Boyle had with visitors, ranging from fellow aristocrats to sailors and others who had travelled to exotic locations, and even artisans whom he quizzed for information about their trades (XXI, XXIV, XXVI). This comprises some of the most approachable material in the series, and it reveals key aspects of Boyle's intellectual method, not least the way in which his interrogation of his informants reflected a prepared agenda on his part, often based on reading that he had done.

To some extent the interviews may have taken place on an almost random basis (and it seems likely that a fairly miscellaneous range of information might come to light in any specific conversation). But often, Boyle seems specifically to have sought out a particular informant because he wanted to learn more about a topic on which he understood the man in question to be an expert. The burgeoning of this particular type of work-diary at this time, in the 1660s, coincides with Boyle's increasingly prolonged residence in London, culminating in his actual move to the metropolis in 1668 to live with his sister, Lady Ranelagh, at her house in Pall Mall. Clearly this gave Boyle direct access to types of informants whom he had been less likely to run across in Oxford, his main place of residence since 1656. Moreover, this mtaerial is frequently deployed in the rather more essayistic and speculative books that Boyle began to publish around 1670.

However, after a spate of surviving work-diaries of these various types from the 1660s into the early 1670s, the pattern then changes again. From 1674 we have a unique example of a compilation which is in the form of a work-diary, with dated, numbered entries, but which comprises, not experimental or observational notes, but examples for use in Boyle's methodological writings on natural philosophy, marked with abbreviated titles (XXVIII). Over the subsequent few years, the number of extant work-diaries dwindles, and, though some that survive resemble the manner of reportage of the 1660s (XXIX, XXX, XXXII), others revert to a style more reminiscent of the 1650s, taking the form of starker records of recipes and processes, at this point frequently disguised by the use of code (XXXIV, XXXV, XXXI, XXXIII). This is clearly to be seen in the context of the peak in Boyle's interest in alchemy in the late 1670s, as documented by Lawrence Principe in his classic study, Aspiring Adept; the same author has lucidly documented the word-substitutions and ciphers which Boyle used in such notes to disguise the information included in them, in his article, 'Alchemical Secrecy'

From the mid-1680s until the end of Boyle's life, however, a pattern recurs which is very similar to that of the 1660s. Thus there is an extensive series of reports from travellers and others (XXXVI). In addition, there are various work-diaries - now consciously headed 'the XVIth Century' and so on - which give reports of experiments that Boyle carried out in very similar terms to those of the 1660s (XXXVII, XXXVIII).

1.4. How did Boyle intend to use the data in the work-diaries?

Why did Boyle record all this data and how did he intend to use it? For Boyle, recording was clearly to some extent impulsive, almost obsessive. In addition, however, he made use of this data. A number of stories, and many accounts of experiments, were recycled in Boyle's published works, particularly in his more speculative works from the early 1670s, but also in his experimental treatises, where it seems clear that many accounts of experiments derived from sources of this kind, either extant or lost. Indeed, apart from the cases where an extant work-diary can be explicitly linked with a passage in Boyle's published writings, there are other instances where Boyle states that an account of an experiment was derived 'from one of my Note Books' although it does not actually survive in an extant work-diary, thus evidently providing clues as to the content of diaries that are now lost: see, for example, Experiments and Considerations about the Porosity of Bodies (1684), in Works, x, pp. xix, 127, 135, 146-7.

It is also clear that Boyle collected information which complemented the content of works by him which were already in print, and his idea - from the 1660s onwards - seems to have been that this material could be sorted and collated into a kind of supplement to these. Indeed, various plans of this kind survive. The first comprises a number of versions of a list entitled 'The Order of my Several Treatises', which names Boyle's published and unpublished writings and assigns them numbers and letters, as if as a form of coding to mark and sort relevant extracts. That one of these lists survives in juxtaposition with a work-diary (and another is endorsed 'Citations') seems to bear this out (see Works, i, pp. xxxiv-v; xiv, pp. xl-xli, 331-2).

Thereafter, this seems to have developed into a more elaborate scheme on Boyle's part for a book called 'Paralipomena', which was to have been appended to his Experimenta et Observationes Physicae; this is also witnessed by various lists of contents, together with introductory material. The term, 'Paralipomena', alludes to the Greek word for 'things omitted', traditionally applied to the Book of Chronicles in the Old Testament, included as a supplement to the Book of Kings; in the seventeenth century, the term had been used to describe a supplement to previous works, and this was obviously Boyle's intended meaning. In his preface, Boyle explained how he had long collected information 'pertinently applicable to this, or that particular Paper of mine', and how 'I was not uneasily perswaded, it was not fit that all those Particulars should be lost; especially since some of them were Experiments & Observations, that might (perhaps) be fit to be received among the Materials, that are gathering in this Industrious Age, towards the History of Nature'. On the other hand, it is slightly curious that the 'Index of the Chapters' does not include the whole of Boyle's published corpus, as had been the case with 'The Order of My Several Treatises', but a list of twenty-four fairly specific projects, to be supplemented by further chapters which 'are to be look'd on in common, as Repositorys of Promiscuous Paralipomena or memoirs' (BP 25, pp. 217, 219, 222). For a full account of 'Paralipomena', including the full text of this and other relevant documents see 'Robert Boyle's "Paralipomena"' (forthcoming).

Boyle seems at least to have begun to sort the material from his work-diaries, usually by having items recopied either singly or as a group: one such group is annexed to the fullest extant version of the preface to 'Paralipomena' already cited, BP 25, pp. 225-72. Indeed, the existence of these secondary compilations occasionally makes it slightly difficult to draw a precise boundary between work-diaries and ancillary material within the Boyle archive. We have therefore annexed a list of such compilations (see Appendix 1).

In addition, certain documents survive which are apparently associated with attempts to sort the material, taking the form of lists of numbers annotated either with the titles of experiments, or with the treatises to which they related. These appear to key to the numbers and the retrospective endorsements that are attached to the entries in certain work-diaries. However, beyond the slightly haphazard recopied series already referred to, it is unclear how far Boyle got with the process of sorting, and it seems likely that the task defeated him because of the scale and complexity of the data involved. We offer an analysis of the significance of these listings as part of the annexed 'Robert Boyle's "Paralipomena"' (forthcoming).

1.5. An exemplary use of electronic technology?

Yet modern electronic technology may well be able to help where manual sorting failed Boyle and his assistants, and it is not least for this reason that this edition of the work-diaries is in electronic form. Digitisation has allowed us to present the work-diaries so that readers are offered a 'clean', easily readable transcript of an entry as well as a parallel version which includes all the emendations to which it was subject, with hypertext links enabling readers to switch back and forth between the two as required. We have also included hypertext links connecting the names of people, places and books that appear in the texts to notes providing relevant information about them. Words can be searched using conventional pattern-matching techniques as well as by using the data contained in many of the TEI tags embedded in the XML file. With the enhanced searching capabilities afforded by diogitised texts, it is possible to implement Boyle's own plans for sorting the material thematically, and hence to produce a kind of 'virtual' version of his 'Paralipomena'. This is truly a case of twentieth-century expertise and technology adding a new dimension to our knowledge of a long-dead figure.

For a fuller account of the work-diaries, from which the account given above has been abstracted, see 'Work-diaries'

Appendix 1:. Calendar of retranscribed material in the Boyle Papers, Royal Society


As explained in the General Introduction, Boyle clearly hoped to reprocess the material in the work-diaries, though his enthusiasm for reorganising it may have dwindled as he worked on his 'Paralipomena': see 'Robert Boyle's "Paralipomena"'. In at least one case, we have a group of material which actually duplicates recognizeable material from a number of extant work-diaries (see below, for BP 26, fols. 78-89, which also has some material which cannot be traced to existing work-diaries). Otherwise, there are a number of documents which are clearly clean copies made retrospectively of nuggets of information of the kind typical of work-diaries, but of which we have not traced the source. Our surmise is that these represent copies of material from work-diaries which no longer survive. Most of these survive in the Boyle Papers, but there is also a significant body of material of this kind in one of John Locke's MSS in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Locke c. 44. We have listed these here for the record but have not transcribed them. The reason for this is that these are derivative from work-diaries rather than part of the actual corpus, and we did not wish to devalue the currency by including material at one remove from the 'real' work-diaries - the result of piecemeal accretion at the time that data was accumulated - to which this edition is devoted. It is to be hoped that they may be transcribed and analysed at some future date.

BP 8, fol. 114: two fair copies, one on the contents and weight of a cylinder and the other on the atmosphere on the top of a high mountain. Hand: Bacon.

BP 9, fol. 49: fair copy extracts from a traveller's account. Hand: Bacon.

BP 9, fol. 78: fair copy of an experiment with a sealed bolt-glass, dated July 27. Hand: Bacon.

BP 17, fols. 41-50: fair copies, written on strips of paper and pasted on to pages, of miscellaneous recipes, medical memoranda, etc., together with introductory text concerning chemical experiments (fols. 43-5: published in Aspiring Adept, pp. 302-4). Hand: mainly Bacon, others.

BP 18, fols. 11ff.: material intended for the second edition of The Natural History of Human Blood, including introductory material, chapter-headings, notes on experiments designed and executed, extracts and observations, etc. Hands: Bacon, Greg, Smith (fol. 11), uncertain.

BP 25, pp. 225-72: 'Memoirs & Paralipomena the 2nd Tome': notes of experiments, reports from travellers, extracts from books, etc., some concerning gems, together with: 'A Description of the Trew Thermometer' (pp. 245-8, endorsed 'Mr. Wick's [?] Description of his Weather Glasse'); title-page, 'Memoirs for Divers parts of Naturall History Treated of by Mr. Boyle... The - Section' (p. 253); two copies of Latin notes on metals (pp. 255-61); list of topics concerning natural history of water (pp. 264-5); list of proposed experiments (p. 267). Two dates in September 1678 appear on p. 225. Hands: Greg, Bacon, others.

BP 25, pp. 309-27: miscellaneous notes and recipes related to those on pp. 225ff., above, including material on a menstruum, perhaps for the treatise on transmutation (p. 309); a note on 'the strange, and incredible vertue of some Herbes' (p. 311); a herbal experiment involving creation of Philosopher's Stone, dated as translated from French in 1627 (p. 313); prefatory material to a paper on the use of alchemical processes (pp. 315-7); definition of spirit (p. 319); a fair copy of 'An Historical Account of a strangely self-moving Liquor' (originally recorded as XXXVI: 4, and published in Philosophical Transactions, 15 (1685), 1188-92) with 'An account of making a moving Liquor' (pp. 321-5); and notes on experiment with aqua fortis and quicksilver (p. 327). Hand: Bacon

BP 26, fols. 33-43: 'Promiscuous Collections out of Parrac his fourth Tome': numbered observations on chemical matters, and further chemical notes and memoranda. Fols. 42-3 contain copies of entries XXVII: 25, 33, 35, 39, 41 and others. Hand: Bacon

BP 26, fols. 78-89: fair copies of observations, reports on conversations, memoranda, recipes, etc.; some pasted down, some numbered. Hand: mainly Bacon, others. Many are fair copies of entries in other work-diaries, as follows:

BP 26, 137: fair copy of XXI: 703. Hand: Bacon

BP 27, pp. 55-57: fair copies of entries XXI: 359, 361, 401a, 402b, 404 (BP 27, pp. 52-3, 69-71). Hand: Bacon.

BP 27, pp. 82-3: fair copies of XXI: 337-9 (BP 27, p. 47). Hand: Bacon.

BP 27, p. 159: fair copy of XXI: 708 (BP 27, p. 144). Hand: Bacon

BP 28, pp. 277-83: miscellaneous reports, observations and recipes, including report of astronomical phenomenon dated 'Aug 8 1688' from Lord Shannon (p. 283). Hands: Bacon, Greg

BP 30, p. 411: observations concerning germination of vegetables and beer in thundery weather in vacuo Boyliano, dated 16 March, 17 June (the latter originally recorded in XXIX: 239 and printed in 'New Experiments about the Preservation of Bodies in Vacuo Boyliano' (1674) (in Works, viii, p. 230)

BP 35, fol. 204: observation on gold found in rivers in Cochin, China. Hand: Bacon

BP 37, fols. 118-19: note on vast extent of Blany family (fair copy of XXXVI: 76) and account of soft wood found in pit in the Netherlands. Hand: Bacon

BP 38, fol. 15: geographical observations. Hand: uncertain

BP 38, fols. 94-6: geographical notes and observations on the nature and characteristics of air, probably intended for inclusion in General History of Air. Hands: Slare, P, G, E. Many are fair copies of entries from work-diary XXI, as follows:

BP 39, fol. 200: note from President of English at Surat (copy of XXXVI: 68). Hand: Bacon

Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Locke c. 37, fols. 76-7 [transcribed]

MS Locke. c. 44: miscellaneous copied notes, some clearly from Boyle's work-diaries (e.g., 'Chymical Receits taken out of the Oxford Book, p. 47).

Appendix 2:. Work-diaries listed in inventories of Boyle's MSS during his lifetime


In the light of what is said in the General Introduction about the extent of loss of work-diaries that evidently once existed, users may find it helpful to have a list of the entries in the various inventories of Boyle's MSS compiled at intervals during his life which clearly describe material of this kind. For an exposition of the texts from which they come, including issues to do with dating, etc., see Works, xiv, pp. xxxviiff. The lists themselves appear in full in ibid., pp. 327ff. Users may also like to know that certain items that apparently comprise work-dairies that can no longer be traced passed through the hands of Henry Miles in the 1730s and 1740s: on these, see 'Lost Papers'. The items in the lifetime inventories are as follows:

'The Order of My Severall Treatises', c. 1665:

V 20 Historia Naturalis sparsa, or promiscuous Expts
Observations in the forme of a Sylva.
X 22 Communicated Observations Physiologicall & Medicall. [These could be any or all of work-diaries VI-XVII]
Y 23 Varia Lectiones Physicæ.
Z 24 Topica particularia on severall subjects [BP 25, p. 264 (not a work-diary) is a brief page entitled, 'Topica Particularia about The Natural History of Water'; perhaps there were others]

Oldenburg's lists of Boyle's 'papers', 26 March 1677:

12. A Chaos of Experiments of my owne, consisting of nine Centuries. In three or four several paper books.

Contents of boxes A and B, c. 1680

Catalogue of Boyle's unpublished writings, 7 July 1684

List of papers in 'new Press', 22 July 1688

List of Boyle's unpublished writings, 3 July 1691

Inventory of Boyle's papers, 17 September 1691

The project for publishing the work-diaries has been funded by the Wellcome Trust, to which we are most grateful. We are also indebted to the library staff of the Royal Society for their help and encourgement. On technical matters, much help has been supplied by Lou Burnard of the TEI Consortium and the Humanities Computing Unit, Oxford University and by Brian fuchs of the Max-Planck Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Berlin. We are also grateful to the Perseus Project for their assistance in preparing this edition for presentation on the Internet.

Address. Contact details:

The Robert Boyle Project, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck College, University of London, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HX
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