From Alchemy to Chemistry:
Five Hundred Years of Rare and Interesting Books

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Rare Book Room Exhibit

BOYLE, ROBERT (1627 - 1691). The Sceptical Chymist: or Chymico-Physical Doubts & Paradoxes. London, 1680.

Second edition of Boyle's masterpiece of scientific literature (of the first edition fewer than 35 copies are known). It is difficult to realize how confused and confusing chemical reactions appeared in Boyle's day. In the form of a dialog, the Sceptical Chymist presented Boyle's hypothesis that matter consisted of atoms and clusters of atoms in motion and that every phenomenon was the result of collisions of particles in motion. He appealed to chemists to experiment and asserted that experiments denied the limiting of elements to only the classic four: earth, fire, air, and water. He also pleaded that chemistry cease being subservient to medicine or to alchemy, but rise to the status of a science. For these reasons, Boyle has been called the founder of modern chemistry.

The Sceptical Chymist is written in a good, though rather prolix, style, enlivened with touches of humor, as when the alchemists are compared with "the Navigators of Solomon's Tarshish Fleet, who brought home . . . not only Gold, and Silver, and Ivory, but Apes and Peacocks too", since their theories "either like Peacock's feathers make a great shew, but are neither solid nor useful; or else, like Apes, if they have some appearance of being rational, are blemish'd with some absurdity or other which makes them appear ridiculous." The chief value of the Sceptical Chymist, aside from its main message, was the wealth of chemical experiment that showed the chemist how to employ corpuscular terms in chemical explanation and also presented new chemical fact. Boyle discovered several new chemical combinations and reactions, as well as a few new chemical substances; the best-known of these is hydrogen, which he prepared from steel filings and strong mineral acid, but there were also various copper and mercury compounds. Unlike other chemists of his day, he never stressed the novelty of such preparations, for it was the reactions and their interpretation that interested him.

Dibner, Heralds, 39; DSB; Partington, II, pp496-498.

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