Chemist, Physicist and Meteorologist, famous for Atomic Theory
An English chemist, meteorologist and physicist, John Dalton (1766-1844), is most famous today for his modern concept of atoms best known as Dalton’s Atomic Theory, the concept that defines science in terms of the atomic theory of elements. He is also famous for the “Dalton’s Law of Multiple Proportions” and “Dalton’s Law of Partial Pressures.”
Through patience, commitment and dedication to work, Dalton developed a concept that material is made of many different types of atoms. This was a vital and critical insight, one that gave birth to the science of chemistry. A bachelor and devout Quaker, Dalton studied patiently the properties of gases and began to provide a framework that enabled scientists to make sense of chemical reactions, and therefore, making accurate predictions of outcomes in mixing different types of atoms.
John Dalton’s Early Years
John Dalton was born on 6 September 1766 in the Cockermouth English Lake District to a Quaker tradesman family. As a boy, he was always alert and inquisitive. At the age of 12, he was appointed teacher at his local school, and to supplement his income he gave public lectures. He was tutored in science by Elihu Robinson, a Quaker relative. Three years later, he went on the far side of the lake at Kendal to teach at a boarding school.
He was introduced to mathematics and natural sciences by John Gough, a blind philosopher. As he was always interested in the weather, he began to make meteorological observations. For the next 15 years, Dalton recorded numerous weather observations. He also collected marsh gas, but it was his observation of gases that first planted the seeds of atomic theory in his mind.
A Chemistry Milestone – Dalton’s Atomic Theory
Dalton’s atomic theory made him a famous name. He developed an understanding that matter is made of many different types of atoms – a significant insight and one that gave birth to the science of chemistry.
John Dalton contributed a series of papers to the Manchester Society of which he became president in 1817, a post he held for the rest of his life. It was this time when he developed and wrote his now famous atomic theory of matter. Dalton claimed that the elements, including hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, are made up of atoms – the key idea that chemists had been looking for. His theory was immediately accepted and became the focus of most chemical researches.
More Significant Contributions: Dalton’s Law of Multiple Proportions and Dalton’s Law of Partial Pressures
In the early 1800s, he announced his “Law of Multiple Proportions” and published his atomic weights and symbols list. Dalton’s great interest in weather proved valuable. He was the first to realize that atmospheric moisture turns to rainfall not as a result of pressure changes, but due to reductions in temperature, reducing the air’s capacity to hold water vapour. He is credited for “Dalton’s Law of Partial Pressures.”
A Humble Hero’s Scientific Achievements Honored
Dalton remained a bachelor all his life. He literally committed his life to his science. Prior to his experiences, he was already loved as a teacher. He was a great acquaintance of John Gough, English blind natural philosopher who taught him Greek and Latin. With the success of his atomic theory his reputation and popularity soared, but he remained a simple man, dressed in the plain Quaker style.
In 1810, his scientific achievements were recognized with an invitation to join the Royal Society. Short of money he declined it, but in 1822, the society elected him a member and paid his election fee. The French Academy of Sciences made him the only permitted foreign member.
His books include: Meteorological Observation and Essays (1793); Law of Partial Pressure of Gases (1802); and A New System of Chemical Philosophy, Part I & II (1808).
Last Years of John Dalton
In midlife, John Dalton found out he had color blindness. In his will, he asked for his eyes to be examined for possible physical cause. None was found. At the age of 78, he died of a stroke on July 27, 1844. As usual, before passing out, he entered in his daily journal the day’s weather. He was given a state funeral by the people of Manchester, a well-deserved honour for a man who enshrined a concept that matter was built of atoms, a solid foundation he provided for future discoveries.
- Ellyard, David. Who Discovered What When. Sydney: New Holland Publishers (2005).
- Farndon, John, et al. The Great Scientists. Capella / Arcturus (2005).
- John Dalton. ChemHeritage.org. Accessed September 27, 2011
- Moore, Pete. E=MC²: The Great Ideas That Shaped Our World. London: Quintet Publishing (2002).
This article was originally published at Suite101.