The General History of the Air, Designed and Begun by the Honble Robert Boyle Esq.

London: Awnsham and John Churchill, 1692.

First edition of this rare posthumously published work on the nature of gases, seen through the press by Boyle’s friend John Locke and containing some of Locke’s own early meteorological observations. The product of Boyle’s life’s work on gases, the General History “is of special interest in that it sums up his ultimate conclusions” (Fulton, Boyle, p. 133). The work is of considerable importance in the history of science – not only did the views Boyle expressed here become the basis for the phlogiston theory of combustion, it also contained the first clear statement of the kinetic theory of gases, almost half a century before Daniel Bernoulli’s Hydrodynamica. Only two other copies of Boyle’s work have appeared at auction in the past 25 years.


“The book begins with an excellent definition which deserves to be quoted (p. 1): ‘By the Air I commonly understand that thin, fluid, diaphanous, compressible and dilatable Body in which we breath, and wherein we move, which envelops the Earth on all sides to a great height above the highest Mountains; but yet is so different from the Aether [or Vacuum] in the intermundane or interplanetary Spaces, that it refracts the Rays of the Moon and other remoter Luminaries.’ He then discusses the ingredients of the air, prefacing his remarks by the following prescient sentence (p. 3): 'I much suspect there lies yet something concealed in it, that needs a further Discovery, which may perhaps be made by further Trials,’ It seems then not improbable to me', he goes on to say, ‘that our Atmospherical Air may consist of three differing kinds of Corpuscles'” (Fulton, p. 134).

“Although [his] explanation of the composition of the air is crude, it had the effect of directing attention to the fact that the atmosphere is not ‘mere nothingness,’ but a ‘something’ with a definite composition, and this served as a good foundation for future investigations. To be sure, Boyle was neither the first nor the only chemist who had suspected that the air was a mixture of gases, and not a simple one … but Boyle’s work was better known, and in its effect probably more important. But with all Boyle’s explanations of the composition of air, he still believed that there was an inexplicable something, a ‘vital substance,’ which he was unable to fathom, and which later became the basis of Stahl’s phlogiston theory. Commenting on this mysterious substance, Boyle says: ‘The difficulty we find in keeping flame and fire alive, though but for a little time, without air, renders it suspicious that there be dispersed through the rest of the atmosphere some odd substance, either of a solar, astral, or other foreign nature; on account of which the air is so necessary to the substance of flame.’ It was this idea that attracted the attention of George Ernst Stahl (1660-1734), a professor of medicine in the University of Halle, who later founded his new theory upon it” (H. S. Williams, A History of Science, Vol. 4, p. 7).

“There follows a most remarkable passage on the ‘Structure’ of the air, which amounts virtually to a statement of the modern kinetic theory of gases. This is what he says (pp. 6-7): “Only I shall here intimate that though the Elastical Air seem to continue such, rather upon the score of its Structure, than any external Agitation; yet Heat, that is a kind of Motion, may make the agitated Particles strive to recede further and further from the Centers of their Motions, and to beat off those, that would hinder the freedom of their Gyrations and so very much add to the endeavour of such Air to expand it self. And I will allow you to suspect, that there may be sometimes mingled with the Particles that are springy, upon the newly mentioned Account, some others, that owe their Elasticity, not so much to their Structure, as their Motion, which, variously brandishing them and whirling them about, may make them beat off the neighbouring Particles, and thereby promote an expansive Endeavour in the Air, whereof they are Parts’” (Fulton, p. 134).

“The kinetic theory of gases originated in the ancient idea that matter consists of tiny invisible atoms in rapid motion. In the 17th century this idea was revived and used to explain, among other phenomena, the properties of gases. The British chemist and physicist Robert Boyle (1627-1691), building on the work of several other 17th-century scientists, showed that air is ‘elastic’: it resists compression and expands to fill the available space … Boyle mentioned two alternative atomistic explanations for air pressure: (1) air is composed of particles that repel each other, like coiled-up pieces of wool or springs; (2) air is composed of whirling particles that push each other away by impacts. The first hypothesis was taken up by Isaac Newton, who proved mathematically that if air pressure is due to the repulsion of neighboring particles, then the repulsive force must be inversely proportional to their distances. The second hypothesis, which Boyle associated with Descartes’ etherial vortices, lacked a quantitative foundation in the 17th century, though it gained qualitative support from the common idea that heat is related to atomic motion and the observation that air pressure increases with temperature” (Brush, History of the Kinetic Theory of Gases, p. 2).

“The later parts of the book are taken up with discussions of clouds, mist, wind, and an important series of barometric observations based on ‘A Register kept by Mr (John) Locke, in Oxford’ (from June 1666 to June 1683). Locke recorded, among other things, the state of the Oxford sky, and on 4 September 1666 he characterized it as ‘Dim reddish Sunshine’. In a footnote Locke explains the observation as follows (p. 106): ‘This unusual colour of the Air, which without a Cloud appearing, made the Sun-beams of a strange red dim Light, was very remarkable. We had then heard nothing of the Fire of London: But it appeared afterwards to be the Smoak of London then burning, which driven this way by an Easterly Wind, caused this odd Phenomenon.’ A long and interesting letter from Locke, dated ‘Ch. Ch. 5 May, 1666’, relating to the barometer, is reprinted on pages 137-41” (Fulton, p. 134).

Locke was uniquely well placed to see Boyle’s book through the press: not only had he acted as informal executor after his mentor’s death in December 1691, he had also made copies of some of Boyle’s papers, thereby compensating for the loss of some of the originals. The project to compose a comprehensive history of the air “began in the early 1660s when Boyle set out a set of Heads or Titles as a guideline for the collaborative gathering of information. No copy of this printed list survives, but there are likely responses to it among Boyle’s papers, some from the mid-1660s. Locke’s letter of May 5, 1666, may have been one of these, since as well as including a barometric measurement, it recounts the effects of water in mineral streams mixed with air from the lead mines in Somerset. From the published work it is evident that Boyle’s request had stimulated the participation of a range of observers – friends, travelers, virtuosi, and even royalty (the duke of York, in titles XX and XLVI) – thus marking it as a collaborative project of the Baconian kind … However, the incoming papers do not seem to have been assigned to such Heads, and several manuscripts from the early 1680s reveal attempts at settling on a set of ‘Titles’ under which various letters and papers could be published. One of the Boyle manuscripts Locke copied was ‘The Titles of the Naturall and Experimentall History of the Air’. This entry is dated 1682, and it was probably about this time that Locke began to help Boyle assemble the material. In preparing the text, he also added information from his own sources, including some gathered in Holland” (Yeo, Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science, p. 209).

Wing B3981; Fulton, Boyle, 194; Christophersen, John Locke, p. 13; Harrison & Laslett, Library of John Locke, 460.

4to (190 x 157 mm), pp. xii, 259, [1], woodcut diagrams in the margins of pp. 133 & 135. Contemporary calf, some light wear to extremeties, internally fine and clean.

Item #4046

Price: $12,000.00

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