Towneley, Richard

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(b. Towneley Hall, near Burnley, Lancashire, England, 1629; d, York, England, 22 January 1707)

natural philosophy.

Towneley was a member of a celebrated Roman Catholic family which, from the reign of Elizabeth I, was burdened by the penal measures of a succession of Protestant rulers, although wealth and ingenuity were sufficient to preserve both their religious integrity and their large estates. These circumstances partly explain Towneley’s aversion to publicity and his retiring disposition.

Towneley was the eldest son of Charles Towneley, who was killed at the Battle of Marston Moor (1644). Richard married Margaret Paston, a Norfolk Catholic, and established a large family at Towneley Hall. In spite of the premature accretion of family responsibilities, he was able to devote most of his energies to science: the interest was probably stimulated by his uncle, Christopher Towneley (1604–1674), who had known the northern astronomers Horrocks, Crabtree, and Gascoigne. Following their deaths during the Civil War, Christopher Towneley collected and preserved their manuscripts.

Almost all of Toweneley’s work took place in his home. He accumulated an outstanding library of scientific works and attracted many local collaborators, mainly Catholic gentry, but also Henry Power and John Flamsteed. With Power, Towneley made early, fruitful investigations concerning air pressure. They repeated and augmented the classical experiments of Torricelli, Pascal, and Pecquet; and in 1660 and 1661 undertook experiments that led to a recognition of the air presure–volume relationship, subsequently known as Boyle’s law. Their discovery was published in 1661, but the law was not generally known until Boyle’s New Experiments Phvsico-Mechanical (2nd edition, 1662). Boyle acknowledged Towneley’s assistance in arriving at this generalization. Towneley’s interest in air pressure continued, with attempts to measure altitudes barometrically and investigations of capillarity and the meteorological use of barometers. The interest widened to include other meteological records; particularly important were his detailed measurements of rainfall, kept between 1677 and 1704.

Perhaps Towneley’s most significant achievement was the improvement of the micrometer. Working from the principle discovered by Gascoigne, Towneley produced a sophisticated micrometer, which he applied to astronomical uses. He introduced this instrument to Flamsteed and the Royal Society. From 1670 he and Flamsteed collaborated on routine astronomical observations.

Towneley’s position in English natural philosophy was distinctive, since he was one of the very few thoroughgoing Cartesians.


I. Original Works. Towneley’s MSS were dispersed at the Victorian sale of the Towneley library: few of the MSS have been traced. His few publications were communicated by correspondents and friends. Mercurial Experiment Made at Towneley Hall in the Years 1660 and 1661 was known in September 1661, but no copy has survived; it was reprinted in Henry Power, Experimental Philosophy (London, 1664). Towneley’s micrometer was described in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 2 , nos. 25, 29 (1667), 457–458, 541–544. For Flamsteed’s communication of Towneley’s account of the eclipse of 1676, see Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 11 (1676), 602-604. For Towneley’s rainfall records, see ibid., 18 (1699), 51; 21 (1702), 47; and 25 (1705), 1877–1881.

Towneley’s most substantial surviving MSS are “Considerations uppon Mr. Hooke’s attempt for ye Explication of ye Expt. of ye waters ascent into small Glassecanes” (1665) and “A preliminarie discourse wherein . . . the existence or qualitie and motion of a subtle matter is proved” (1667), in the Fulton Library, Yale University. For his correspondence, see Webster (1966), below. Particularly important is the Flamsteed-Towneley correspondence, Royal Society MS 243.

II. Secondary Literature. Towneley is not mentioned in the standard biographical dictionaries. His scientific work is summarized in A. Wolf, History of Science and Technology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 2nd ed. (London, 1962). For more detailed discussion, see the following articles by C. Webster: “Richard Towneley and Boyle’s Law,“in Nature, 197 (1963), 226–228; “The Discovery of Boyle’s Law and the Concept of the Elasticity of Air in the Seventeenth Century,” in Archive for History of Exact Sciences, 2 (1965), 441–502; “Richard Towneley, the Towneley Group and Seventeenth-century Science,” in Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 118 (1966), 51–76; and “Henry power’s Experimental Philosophy,” in Ambix, 14 (1967), 150–178.

Charles Webster