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A Reader's Guide to the Workdiaries

To the modern reader, the most interesting passages in the workdiaries are not necessarily those that come first in the series. Hence if your interest is primarily in Boyle as an experimenter and empiricist, you should leap to the following points in the series:

Boyle's experimental activity

This is most in evidence from c. 1660, in other words from Workdiary 19 onwards, when the workdiaries become more wide-ranging in their experimental records, fuller in their narrative, and more explicit about their rationale. From this point onwards, their subjectmatter is often identified by Boyle himself either in his commentary or his endorsement.

This continues into his later years, when he is often to be found recapitulating experiments he had done earlier to satisfy himself and others, for instance in Workdiaries 29, 37 and 38. There are also extensive investigations of such topics as specific gravity.

Boyle's wider curiosity

This is illustrated particularly by Workdiaries 21 and 36, which are full of travellers' reports to Boyle of strange and interesting phenomena which they had witnessed. Though the information mostly came from visitors to exotic locations, Boyle also quizzed local craftsmen about their practices. Longer narratives of strange or unusual phenomena appear in Workdiaries 24 and 32.

One particularly intriguing episode is recounted in Workdiary 26, which contains Boyle's accounts of cures by the Irish 'stroker', Valentine Greatrakes, in April 1666.

Workdiaries as commonplace books

The earliest workdiaries are comparable to the commonplace books kept for purposes of literary composition by many early modern intellectuals. Here we find passages copied from the French romance, Cassandre, and from Parthenissa by Boyle's brother, Lord Broghill.

A later workdiary devoted mainly to extracts from books, by now on geography and natural philosophy, is Workdiary 22. A further 'type' is represented by Workdiary 28, which contains obiter dicta of Boyle's own, evidently intended for use in the compositions that are there referred to, none of which otherwise survive.

Workdiaries as recipe books

Workdiaries 6-18, covering the 1650s, are dominated by recipes. These are often quite hard to get into, since they are rather telegraphically written, though they are potentially rewarding as an example of data collection of this kind. Boyle frequently identifies his source, for instance Sir Kenelm Digby. For the interpretation of a key episode, when Boyle was being mentored by George Starkey, see Newman and Principe (2002), pp. 216-21.

Such material recurs subsequently, particularly in the 1670s, when the material is often more overtly alchemical. See Workdiaries 23, 27, 31 and 33-5. In these, Boyle sometimes uses code names for his ingredients: for a commentary, see Principe (1992).

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