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Reference group
Invisible College (act. 1646–1647) was a society, also known as the Philosophical College, whose members gathered for the pursuit of useful knowledge dedicated to the public good. Very little is known about the college, as the supporting documentation is limited to four written statements (of which three are extracts from letters) composed by the young Robert Boyle. In 1646 Boyle—the youngest son of the first earl of Cork—was living at Stalbridge, Dorset, while also making frequent visits to London. It was two years since Boyle had returned from a tour of Italy and a residence in Geneva under the tutelage of Isaac Marcombes. In the earliest reference to the college Boyle explained—in a letter to his former teacher dated 22 October 1646—that ‘The other humane studies I apply myself to, are natural philosophy, the mechanics, and husbandry’. These studies were ‘according to the principles of our new philosophical college, that values no knowledge, but as it hath a tendency to use’. Boyle suggested that Marcombes, then resident in Geneva, should, on his next visit to England, ‘bring along with you what good receipts or choice books of any of these subjects you can procure; which will make you extremely welcome at our invisible college’ (Boyle, Correspondence, 1.42).

On 20 February 1647 Boyle wrote from London to Francis Tallents, a fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, describing how
the corner-stones of the invisible, or (as they term themselves) the philosophical college, do now and then honour me with their company … men of so capacious and searching spirits, that school-philosophy is but the lowest region of their knowledge.
Boyle went on to identify the college's participants as
persons, that endeavour to put narrow-mindedness out of countenance, by practice of so extensive a charity … And indeed they are so apprehensive of the want of good employment, that they take the whole body of mankind for their care. (Boyle, Correspondence 1.46)
Boyle's third statement came in a letter to Samuel Hartlib, dated 8 May 1647, in which he remarked on Hartlib's preoccupation with the group: ‘you interest yourself so much in the Invisible College, and that whole society is so highly concerned in all the accidents of your life’, with the effect that ‘you can send me no intelligence of your own affairs, that does not (at least relationally) assume the nature of Utopian’ (Boyle, Correspondence, 1.58). The Invisible College is often seen as a precursor to Hartlib's own proposed office of address for communications which, centred on Oxford, was intended to be a ‘Center and Meeting-place of Advices, of Proposalls, of Treaties and of all Manner of Intellectual Rarities’ (Hartlib, 48). Finally, it is likely that Boyle was again referring to the Invisible College when, in his ‘A doctrine of thinking’, dating from this period, he described ‘the Filosoficall Colledge: who all confess themselves to be beholding for the better part of their rare and New-coyned Notions to the Diligence and Intelligence of their Thoughts’ (Early Essays, 186).

Given that Boyle was a regular visitor to London in 1646–7, it is probable that meetings of the college were held in the capital. However, Boyle's commentaries provide no evidence as to membership (aside from himself) and only serve to identify that Marcombes, Tallents, and Hartlib were not participants, at least at the time of their correspondence. The college's prime mover may have been Benjamin Worsley, a former physician turned projector in Ireland who was closely associated with Hartlib and who also corresponded with Boyle between November 1646 and February 1647. It is also likely that Boyle's elder sister, Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh, was involved. She too was aware and supportive of the work of Worsley, who may be the subject of a letter from her brother—probably written in June 1647—in which Boyle referred to ‘one of your own fraternity, who thinks himself in the highest class of your philosophical Society’ (Webster, ‘New light’, 21). Lady Ranelagh, like her brother and Worsley, was in turn a member of a diverse network of writers—commonly known as the Hartlib circle—who were enthusiastic as to the possibilities of technological change and the dissemination of knowledge. However, despite Boyle's reference in his ‘Doctrine’ to ‘Experiments … I have lately Seen in those I have had the Happiness to be acquainted with of the Filosoficall Colledge’ (Early Essays, 186), there is no evidence that members of his Invisible College practised scientific experimentation; indeed Boyle's adoption of experimental methods came several years after his accounts of the college. Moreover, there is nothing to indicate that the society's name derived from any covert or secretive activities. Whether the Invisible College was based—as Webster has proposed—upon Anglo-Irish connections, and included such men as the physician and natural historian Gerard Boate and his younger brother Arnold Boate (and also possibly John Sadler, the future master of Magdalene College) has been questioned in more recent studies of Boyle (Hunter, 66–7; Leng, 28) . The once common but erroneous identification of the Invisible College as an antecedent of the Royal Society derives from Boyle's eighteenth-century editor Thomas Birch. Reiterated for more than 200 years, the connection has since been dismissed (Webster, ‘New light’, 21–3). There is now thought to be no link between Boyle's ‘college’ and the philosophical society that seems first to have met in London in 1645 and then moved to Wadham College, Oxford, in the 1650s under the aegis of the natural philosopher John Wilkins, whom Boyle met in 1653. It is this group, with which Boyle became associated during the 1650s, that is regarded as the precursor to the Royal Society [see founder members of the Royal Society], of which Boyle was one of the twelve original fellows who gathered in November 1660.

Lauren Kassell


M. Hunter, Boyle: between God and science (2009) · The correspondence of Robert Boyle, ed. M. Hunter, A. Clericuzio, and L. Principe, 6 vols. (2001) · J. T. Harwood, ed., The early essays and ethics of Robert Boyle (1991) · C. Webster, The great instauration: science, medicine and reform, 1626–1660 (1975) · C. Webster, ‘New light on the Invisible College: the social relations of English science in the mid-seventeenth century’, TRHS, 5th ser., 24 (1974), 19–42 · T. Leng, Benjamin Worsley (1618–1677): trade, interest and the spirit in revolutionary England (2008) · [S. Hartlib], Considerations tending to the happy accomplishment of Englands reformation in church and state: humbly presented to the piety and wisdome of the high and honourable court of parliament (1647)