The British Journal for the History of Science

Robert Boyle and the early Royal Society: a reciprocal exchange in the making of Baconian science 1

a1 School of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX, UK. Email:

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This paper documents an important development in Robert Boyle's natural-philosophical method – his use from the 1660s onwards of ‘heads’ and ‘inquiries’ as a means of organizing his data, setting himself an agenda when studying a subject and soliciting information from others. Boyle acknowledged that he derived this approach from Francis Bacon, but he had not previously used it in his work, and the reason why it came to the fore when it did is not apparent from his printed and manuscript corpus. It is necessary to look beyond Boyle to his milieu for the cause, in this case to the influence on him of the Royal Society. Whereas the Royal Society in its early years is often seen as putting into practice a programme pioneered by Boyle, this crucial methodological change on his part seems rather to have been stimulated by the society's early concern for systematic data-collecting. In this connection, it is here shown that a key text, Boyle's influential ‘General Heads for a Natural History of a Country, Great or small’, published in Philosophical Transactions in 1666, represents more of a shared initiative between him and the society than has hitherto been appreciated.


1 This paper is a revised version of a guest lecture given to the British Society for the History of Science at its extraordinary general meeting at the Royal Society on 8 June 2005. I am grateful to Janet Browne, Peter Bowler and Philip Crane for inviting me to give the lecture and for their assistance on that occasion. For comments on a draft of the paper I am grateful to Peter Anstey, Mordechai Feingold, Guido Giglioni and Tina Malcolmson. Earlier versions of part of it were given (and have been cited) under different titles at the 2nd International Bacon Seminar at Queen Mary, University of London, in September 2001; at Johns Hopkins University and Vanderbilt University in March 2002; and at a European Science Foundation workshop at the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, in March 2004. I am grateful to Graham Rees, Lawrence M. Principe, Matthew Ramsay, Sachiko Kusukawa and Ian Maclean for hosting me on those occasions, and to the audiences for their comments. I have also benefited from comments by Harriet Knight, Daniel Carey and Ken Brown, and I am grateful to Joanna Corden and the archive staff at the Royal Society for their assistance.