See study by A. Thackray (1972).
John Dalton, detail of an engraving by W. Worthington, after a portrait by William Allen, 1814.
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John Dalton FRS (6 September 1766 – 27 July 1844) was an English chemist, meteorologist and physicist. He is best known for his pioneering work in the development of modern atomic theory, and his research into colour blindness (sometimes referred to as Daltonism, in his honour).
Dalton's early life was highly influenced by a prominent Eaglesfield Quaker named Elihu Robinson, a competent meteorologist and instrument maker, who got him interested in problems of mathematics and meteorology. During his years in Kendal, Dalton contributed solutions of problems and questions on various subjects to the Gentlemen's and Ladies' Diaries, and in 1787 he began to keep a meteorological diary in which, during the succeeding 57 years, he entered more than 200,000 observations. Dalton's first publication was Meteorological Observations and Essays (1793), which contained the seeds of several of his later discoveries. However, in spite of the originality of his treatment, little attention was paid to them by other scholars. A second work by Dalton, Elements of English Grammar, was published in 1801.
In 1794, shortly after his arrival in Manchester, Dalton was elected a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, the "Lit & Phil", and a few weeks later he communicated his first paper on "Extraordinary facts relating to the vision of colours", in which he postulated that shortage in colour perception was caused by discolouration of the liquid medium of the eyeball. In fact, a shortage of colour perception in some people had not even been formally described or officially noticed until Dalton wrote about his own. Although Dalton's theory lost credence in his own lifetime, the thorough and methodical nature of his research into his own visual problem was so broadly recognized that Daltonism became a common term for colour blindness. Examination of his preserved eyeball in 1995 demonstrated that Dalton actually had a less common kind of colour blindness, deuteroanopia, in which medium wavelength sensitive cones are missing (rather than functioning with a mutated form of their pigment, as in the most common type of colour blindness, deuteroanomaly). Besides the blue and purple of the spectrum he was able to recognize only one colour, yellow, or, as he says in his paper,
This paper was followed by many others on diverse topics on rain and dew and the origin of springs, on heat, the colour of the sky, steam, the auxiliary verbs and participles of the English language and the reflection and refraction of light.
The second of these essays opens with the striking remark,
After describing experiments to ascertain the pressure of steam at various points between 0° and 100°C (32° and 212°F), he concluded from observations on the vapour pressure of six different liquids, that the variation of vapour pressure for all liquids is equivalent, for the same variation of temperature, reckoning from vapour of any given pressure.
In the fourth essay he remarks,
He thus enunciated Gay-Lussac's law or J.A.C. Charles's law, published in 1802 by Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac. In the two or three years following the reading of these essays, Dalton published several papers on similar topics, that on the absorption of gases by water and other liquids (1803), containing his law of partial pressures now known as Dalton's law.
The most important of all Dalton's investigations are those concerned with the atomic theory in chemistry, with which his name is inseparably associated. It has been proposed that this theory was suggested to him either by researches on ethylene (olefiant gas) and methane (carburetted hydrogen) or by analysis of nitrous oxide (protoxide of azote) and nitrogen dioxide (deutoxide of azote), both views resting on the authority of Thomas Thomson. However, a study of Dalton's own laboratory notebooks, discovered in the rooms of the Lit & Phil, concluded that so far from Dalton being led by his search for an explanation of the law of multiple proportions to the idea that chemical combination consists in the interaction of atoms of definite and characteristic weight, the idea of atoms arose in his mind as a purely physical concept, forced upon him by study of the physical properties of the atmosphere and other gases. The first published indications of this idea are to be found at the end of his paper on the absorption of gases already mentioned, which was read on 21 October 1803, though not published until 1805. Here he says:
He proceeds to print his first published table of relative atomic weights. Six elements appear in this table, namely hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, sulfur, and phosphorus, with the atom of hydrogen conventionally assumed to weigh 1. Dalton provided no indication in this first paper how he had arrived at these numbers. However, in his laboratory notebook under the date 6 September 1803 there appears a list in which he sets out the relative weights of the atoms of a number of elements, derived from analysis of water, ammonia, carbon dioxide, etc. by chemists of the time.
It appears, then, that confronted with the problem of calculating the relative diameter of the atoms of which, he was convinced, all gases were made, he used the results of chemical analysis. Assisted by the assumption that combination always takes place in the simplest possible way, he thus arrived at the idea that chemical combination takes place between particles of different weights, and it was this which differentiated his theory from the historic speculations of the Greeks, such as Democritus and Lucretius.
The extension of this idea to substances in general necessarily led him to the law of multiple proportions, and the comparison with experiment brilliantly confirmed his deduction. It may be noted that in a paper on the proportion of the gases or elastic fluids constituting the atmosphere, read by him in November 1802, the law of multiple proportions appears to be anticipated in the words: "The elements of oxygen may combine with a certain portion of nitrous gas or with twice that portion, but with no intermediate quantity", but there is reason to suspect that this sentence may have been added some time after the reading of the paper, which was not published till 1805.
Compounds were listed as binary, ternary, quaternary, etc. (molecules composed of two, three, four, etc. atoms) in the New System of Chemical Philosophy depending on the number of atoms a compound had in its simplest, empirical form.
He hypothesized the structure of compounds can be represented in whole number ratios. So, one atom of element X combining with one atom of element Y is a binary compound. Furthermore, one atom of element X combining with two elements of Y or vice versa, is a ternary compound. Many of the first compounds listed in the New System of Chemical Philosophy correspond to modern views, although many others do not.
Dalton used his own symbols to visually represent the atomic structure of compounds. These have made it in New System of Chemical Philosophy where Dalton listed a number of elements, and common compounds.
Dalton proposed an additional "rule of greatest simplicity" that created controversy, since it could not be independently confirmed.
This was merely an assumption, derived from faith in the simplicity of nature. No evidence was then available to scientists to deduce how many atoms of each element combine to form compound molecules. But this or some other such rule was absolutely necessary to any incipient theory, since one needed an assumed molecular formula in order to calculate relative atomic weights. In any case, Dalton's "rule of greatest simplicity" caused him to assume that the formula for water was OH and ammonia was NH, quite different from our modern understanding.
Despite the uncertainty at the heart of Dalton's atomic theory, the principles of the theory survived. To be sure, the conviction that atoms cannot be subdivided, created, or destroyed into smaller particles when they are combined, separated, or rearranged in chemical reactions is inconsistent with the existence of nuclear fusion and nuclear fission, but such processes are nuclear reactions and not chemical reactions. In addition, the idea that all atoms of a given element are identical in their physical and chemical properties is not precisely true, as we now know that different isotopes of an element have slightly varying weights. However, Dalton had created a theory of immense power and importance. Indeed, Dalton's innovation was fully as important for the future of the science as Antoine Laurent Lavoisier's oxygen-based chemistry had been.
Dalton communicated his atomic theory to Thomson who, by consent, included an outline of it in the third edition of his System of Chemistry (1807), and Dalton gave a further account of it in the first part of the first volume of his New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808). The second part of this volume appeared in 1810, but the first part of the second volume was not issued till 1827. This delay is not explained by any excess of care in preparation, for much of the matter was out of date and the appendix giving the author's latest views is the only portion of special interest. The second part of vol. ii. never appeared.
He was president of the Lit & Phil from 1817 until his death, contributing 116 memoirs. Of these the earlier are the most important. In one of them, read in 1814, he explains the principles of volumetric analysis, in which he was one of the earliest workers. In 1840 a paper on the phosphates and arsenates, often regarded as a weaker work, was refused by the Royal Society, and he was so incensed that he published it himself. He took the same course soon afterwards with four other papers, two of which (On the quantity of acids, bases and salts in different varieties of salts and On a new and easy method of analysing sugar) contain his discovery, regarded by him as second in importance only to the atomic theory, that certain anhydrates, when dissolved in water, cause no increase in its volume, his inference being that the salt enters into the pores of the water.
As an investigator, Dalton was often content with rough and inaccurate instruments, though better ones were obtainable. Sir Humphry Davy described him as "a very coarse experimenter", who almost always found the results he required, trusting to his head rather than his hands. On the other hand, historians who have replicated some of his crucial experiments have confirmed Dalton's skill and precision.
In the preface to the second part of Volume I of his New System, he says he had so often been misled by taking for granted the results of others that he determined to write "as little as possible but what I can attest by my own experience", but this independence he carried so far that it sometimes resembled lack of receptivity. Thus he distrusted, and probably never fully accepted, Gay-Lussac's conclusions as to the combining volumes of gases. He held unconventional views on chlorine. Even after its elementary character had been settled by Davy, he persisted in using the atomic weights he himself had adopted, even when they had been superseded by the more accurate determinations of other chemists. He always objected to the chemical notation devised by Jöns Jakob Berzelius, although most thought that it was much simpler and more convenient than his own cumbersome system of circular symbols.
Before he had propounded the atomic theory, he had already attained a considerable scientific reputation. In 1804, he was chosen to give a course of lectures on natural philosophy at the Royal Institution in London, where he delivered another course in 1809–1810. However, some witnesses reported that he was deficient in the qualities that make an attractive lecturer, being harsh and indistinct in voice, ineffective in the treatment of his subject, and singularly wanting in the language and power of illustration.
In 1810, Sir Humphrey Davy asked him to offer himself as a candidate for the fellowship of the Royal Society, but Dalton declined, possibly for financial reasons. However, in 1822 he was proposed without his knowledge, and on election paid the usual fee. Six years previously he had been made a corresponding member of the French Académie des Sciences, and in 1830 he was elected as one of its eight foreign associates in place of Davy.
Dalton never married and had only a few close friends. He lived for more than a quarter of a century with his friend the Rev. W. Johns (1771–1845), in George Street, Manchester, where his daily round of laboratory work and tuition was broken only by annual excursions to the Lake District and occasional visits to London. In 1822 he paid a short visit to Paris, where he met many distinguished resident scientists. He attended several of the earlier meetings of the British Association at York, Oxford, Dublin and Bristol.
Dalton suffered a minor stroke in 1837, and a second one in 1838 left him with a speech impediment, though he remained able to do experiments. In May 1844 he had yet another stroke; on 26 July he recorded with trembling hand his last meteorological observation. On 27 July, in Manchester, Dalton fell from his bed and was found lifeless by his attendant.
He was buried in Manchester in Ardwick cemetery. The cemetery is now a playing field, but pictures of the original grave are in published materials.
A bust of Dalton, by Chantrey, was publicly subscribed for and placed in the entrance hall of the Royal Manchester Institution. Chantrey also crafted a large statue of Dalton, now in the Manchester Town Hall.
In honour of Dalton's work, many chemists and biochemists use the (as of yet unofficial) unit dalton (abbreviated Da) to denote one atomic mass unit, or 1/12 the weight of a neutral atom of carbon-12.
The University of Manchester established two Dalton Chemical Scholarships, two Dalton Mathematical Scholarships, and a Dalton Prize for Natural History.
A lunar crater has been named after Dalton.
The name Dalton can often be heard in the halls of many quaker schools, for example, one of the school houses in Coram House, the primary sector of Ackworth School, is called Dalton.