Over three hundred years ago, Robert Boyle FRS wrote a list of things that he hoped could be achieved through science, from the prolongation of life to 'varnishes perfumable by rubbing'.

Page 1 of Robert Boyle's to-do list (detail)

Have you ever wished you could swim underwater for extended periods without scuba-gear? Wanted to be taller? Wished you could put a halt to the ageing process? As it happens, you’re not alone. Over three hundred years ago, Robert Boyle FRS wrote a list of things that he hoped could be achieved through science. Beginning with ‘The Prolongation of Life’, the list includes items such as ’emulating fish … by custom and education only’, ‘attaining gigantick dimensions’, and ‘recovery of youth, or at least the signs of it’.

For me, the fascinating thing about the list is its eclectic mixture of topics for research. Today most of us would consider the prolongation of life as a worthy cause (although this may not necessarily have been so in the deeply religious culture of Boyle’s time); we would perhaps be more dubious about the usefulness of teaching people how to swim underwater like fish. I’d definitely like to see ‘A perpetuall light’ discovered in my lifetime, but ‘Varnishes perfumable by rubbing’? Um, not something I’d ever really thought about. But that’s the other thing I love about this list – the way it shows the curiosity of the early Fellows of the Royal Society about every aspect of life. They were just beginning to realise that it was possible to know more about how the world works, and Boyle’s list shows how eager they were to make discoveries that would change the lives of ordinary people for the better.

Boyle’s list of scientific projects:

The Prolongation of Life.
The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.
The Art of Flying.
The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there.
The Cure of Wounds at a Distance.
The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation.
The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions.
The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only.
The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed.
The Transmutation of Metalls.
The makeing of Glass Malleable.
The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables.
The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums.
The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.
The making Armor light and extremely hard.
The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes.
The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches.
Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.
A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk.
Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.
Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify’d by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author.
Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons.
A perpetuall Light.
Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing.

Page 1 of Robert Boyle's to-do list

Page 2 of Robert Boyle's to-do list
Royal Society Archives RB/1/8/30


  • Dr Felicity Henderson

    Dr Felicity Henderson

    Dr Felicity Henderson was the Royal Society Library Events and Exhibitions Manager from January 2008 to September 2013. She is now at the University of Exeter.