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The Emergence of Dalton's Chemical Atomic Theory: 1801-08*

  • Arnold W. Thackray


The slow emergence of Dalton's chemical atomic theory has long been a considerable puzzle to historians of science The lengthy delay between Dalton's early work on mixed gases (September 1801) and particle weights (September 1803) and the eventual publication of the first part of his New System of Chemical Philosophy (June 1808) has called forth a variety of explanations. It is now more than half a century since A. N. Meldrum stressed

“…the efforts Dalton had to make, in order to arouse attention to the importance of his ideas regarding atoms. For some nine years (1801-1810), if not longer, he endeavoured to spread abroad his ideas, both by private communications and publicly, by his writings and by lectures in various parts of the country…

“Dalton's chemical theory was formed by the 6th September 1803, and he proceeded forthwith to extend and apply it, and make it known in every direction…”

And though Meldrum's view is now no longer accepted, no systematic and detailed account of Dalton's activities over these years is available to replace Meldrum's assertions.



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1 Dalton, J., A New System of Chemical Philosophy (Part 1, London, 1808), referred to hereafter as the New System. For the June dating see Neville, R. G., “Unrecorded Daltoniana”, Ambix, viii (1960), 4245.

2 Manchester Memoirs, lv (1911), No. 19, pp. 2, 3. The series of papers on “The development of the atomic theory”, which A. N. Meldrum read to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society over the period 1909–11, still remains an important study of the issues involved.

3 See my “Documents relating to the origins of Dalton's chemical atomic theory”, Manchester Memoirs (in the press).

4 Nash, L. K., “The origin of Dalton's chemical atomic theory”, Isis, xlvii (1956), 101116.

5 Principally by Guerlac, H. E., “Some Daltonian doubts”, Isis, lii (1961), 544554; Siegfried, R., “Further Daltonian doubts”, Isis, liv (1963), 480481; and Thackray, A. W., “The origin of Dalton's chemical atomic theory: Daltonian doubts resolved”, Isis (in the press).

6 A brief consideration is provided in my Isis paper. A more exhaustive study will appear in my thesis on “The development of atomism from Newton to Dalton”, now in preparation.

7 Manchester Memoirs, lv (1911), No. 3, p. 12.

8 In the narrative that follows I shall weave together Dalton's statements at the time and his recollections five, ten or even twenty-five years later.

A separate issue from the reliability of Dalton's chronological statements is his habit of altering papers between their initial reading and their subsequent publication in the Manchester Memoirs. As secretary of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society from 1800, Dalton was in a position to bring his papers up to date before publication. That he availed himself of this opportunity was first pointed out by Roscoe and Harden (op. cit. infra., (10), 31). In this paper I shall produce additional evidence of Dalton's extensive use of this practice.

9 Points 4 and 5 were originally developed in my Isis paper.

10 The earliest, inductivist, account saw Dalton's 1804 work on marsh gas as the crucial event. See Thomson, T., The History of Chemistry (London, 18301831), ii, 291. Recognizing the inadequacies of Thomson's account, Meldrum sought in his 1909-11 papers to remodel the inductivist version, basing it on Dalton's 1803 work on the nitrogen oxides. See A. N. Meldrum, op.cit. (2). The inadequacy of Meldrum's own account was, however, well demonstrated by L. K. Nash, who instead saw particular significance in the work arising from Henry's Law, and in the 1804 visit of Thomas Thomson. See L. K. Nash, op.cit. (4). Though Nash's general thesis is very important, neither of his crucial events appears quite so crucial on examination. See below and A. W. Thackray, op.cit. (5).

An alternative approach to the question of where Dalton's originality lay was made by H. E. Roscoe and A. Harden who explained how Dalton “…arrived at the idea that chemical combination takes place between particles of different weights, and this it was which differentiated his theory from the historic speculations of the Greeks…” See A New View of the Origin of Dalton's Atomic Theory (London, 1896), 51. This belief, though persistent, lacks adequate foundation. (Roscoe and Harden's account does, however, have the merit of not demanding a crucial event.) A recent example of this viewpoint is Guerlac's statement that “sometime in the summer of 1803…Dalton must have hit upon the idea that the different atomic species…had characteristic weights…”. See Guerlac, H. E., op.cit. (5), 551. Guerlac argues for the crucial significance of Richter's table of equivalents.

11 Reproduced in Henry, W. C., Memoirs of the Life and Scientific Researches of John Dalton (London, 1854), 910.

12 Details of John Gough (1757–1825) are given in the Dictionary of National Biography.

13 Henry, W. C., op.cit. (11), 16.

14 Brockbank, E. M., John Dalton, Experimental Physiologist and would-be Physician (Manchester, 1929), 67.

15 Apart from the lecture on fire, Dalton had given a similar course in 1787. See Henry, W. C., op.cit. (11), 16. A photograph of the 1791 syllabus is given in “John Dalton's Lectures and Lecture Illustrations” by Gee, W. W. H., Coward, H. F. and Harden, A., Manchester Memoirs, lix (1915), No. 12, Plate I.

16 As he described himself on the title-page of his first book, the Meteorological Observations and Essays (London, 1793).

* referred to hereafter as the Lit. and Phil.

17 Smith, R. A., “Memoir of John Dalton and History of the Atomic Theory up to his time”, Manchester Memoirs, xiii (1856), 27.

18 Thomas Percival (1740–1804) was educated at the Warrington Academy, and went on to study medicine in Edinburgh and Leyden. He settled in Manchester in 1767, becoming a founder member of the Lit. and Phil. See the Dictionary of National Biography for further details.

19 Thomas Henry, F.R.S. (1734–1816), though only trained as an apothecary, had a decided interest in chemistry on which he lectured in Manchester in the 1780's. See Manchester Memoirs, iii (1819), 204240.

20 William Henry, F.R.S. (1774–1836). His son, W. C. Henry, Dalton's first biographer, refers to Dalton's “almost lifelong friendship with my father, never shadowed by even a passing cloud” (Henry, W. C., op. cit. (11), xii).

21 Details of Thomas Garnett (1766–1802) are given in the Dictionary of National Biography.

22 Henry, W. C., op. cit. (11), 47.

23 On page 11 of Dalton's notebook of “Expenses of Journeys”, which is in the possession of the Lit. and Phil.

24 Lonsdale, H., The Worthies of Cumberland. John Dalton (London, 1874), 129.

25 Smith, R. A., op. cit. (17), 18.

26 Roscoe, H. E., John Dalton and the Rise of Modern Chemistry (London, 1901), 51.

27 McLachlan, H., “John Dalton and Manchester”, Manchester Memoirs, lxxxvi (1945), 170.

28 For Dalton's borrowing of books from, and interest in, the library of the Lit. and Phil., see Greenaway, F., “The Biographical Approach to John Dalton”, Manchester Memoirs, c (1959), 20. Dalton's account book for the period 1794–1803, at present on loan to the Science Museum, London, contains regular catalogues of his possessions. That of 5 September 1800 shows him in possession of a library of 53 works, 16 being “philosophical”, 15 “mathematical” and 22 “literary”.

29 E.g. “Glass Retorts, Receivers, etc. etc. 30 at 1/6…Druggs, etc. £1–1–0…a Large Wooden Trough 5/-…”

30 See the Appendix given in Lonsdale, op. cit. (24), for a list of the papers (many never published) which Dalton read to the Lit. and Phil. For reasons explained in Meldrum, op. cit. (2), No. 5, p. 12, Lonsdale appears to have misdated many of these papers by one or two weeks. J. R. Partington in his very valuable study of Dalton (A History of Chemistry (London, 1961-), iii, 755–822) provides evidence that Dalton's idea of aqueous vapour being mechanically mixed with the atmosphere, not chemically combined, dates back to 1793.

31 About which he read a paper to the Lit. and Phil. on 17 October 1800. A previous paper on the subject was read on 7 April 1798. See Lonsdale, op. cit. (24).

32 Lonsdale, , op. cit. (24), 144.

33 Dalton, J., Elements of English Grammar (London, 1801). The “Preliminary Observations” are dated 10 March 1801.

34 Unpublished letter from J. Dalton to J. Fell, 5 April 1801. On loan to the Science Museum, London.

35 Henry, W. C., Manchester Memoirs, vi (1842), 99141.

36 His thesis De aere atmosphaerico is dated 12 September 1799.

37 See Smith, R. A., “A Centenary of Science in Manchester”, Manchester Memoirs, ix (1883).

38 For Henry's eventually realized medical ambitions, see Henry, W. C., op. cit. (35); for Dalton's permanently disappointed ambitions see Brockbank, E. M., op. cit. (14), and Greenaway, F., op. cit. (28).

39 Phil. Trans. (1797), 401415.

40 Henry, W., A general view… (Manchester, 1799), 10.

41 Henry, W., An Epitome of Chemistry (London, 1801), 25.

* A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts; edited by W. Nicholson. I shall use its familiar title, Nicholson's Journal.

42 Nicholson's Journal (first series), v (1802), 244. From the manuscript, which is in the possession of the Lit. and Phil., it appears that Dalton wrote this letter in haste.

43 Manchester Memoirs (first series), v (1802), 535602. This series of essays seems to present the earliest example of (and also Dalton's first opportunity for!) alteration before publication. As well as the papers read in 1801, the published account appears to incorporate material from Dalton's earlier paper, read in April 1800. This is seen from a comparison of the titles of the papers as read (Lonsdale, op. cit. (24)), and as published in 1802.

44 Op. cit. (43), 536.

45 Ibid., 600.

46 For his early mathematical interests see Wilkinson, T. T., Manchester Memoirs, xii (1855), 130. His early meteorological interests are well displayed in all the standard biographies.

47 Henry, W., Nicholson's Journal, viii (1804), 297301.

48 Letter of 26 October 1802. See Paris, J. A., The Life of Sir Humphry Davy (London, 1831), i, 157.

49 (1st ed., Edinburgh, 1802), iii, 270.

50 Nicholson's Journal, iii (1802), 267271 and Philosophical Magazine, xiv (1802), 169173.

51 Letter of 22 March 1802; Lonsdale, , op. cit. (24), 153.

52 New System, 182–183.

53 Under “Absorption of Gases by water” (one of its few entries) this Index has “1802 & 1803” frequently. The Index is in the possession of the Lit. and Phil.

54 Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 55. No notebooks were found for the period prior to September 1802. Thus it is quite possible that Dalton was working on water-solubility even earlier in 1802.

55 See Brown, I. V., Joseph Priestley (Pennsylvania, 1962), 236.

56 Lonsdale, op. cit. (24). Once again the paper was considerably altered before publication—the second half of the paper seems to have been amalgamated with Dalton's paper of October 1803 on gas solubilities, before publication. Compare the titles in Lonsdale with the Manchester Memoirs, i (1805), 244 and 271; and see reference 71.

57 See Nicholson's Journal, iii (1802), 271, for this quotation from a letter written by Dalton six days after reading the paper.

58 Henry, W., op. cit. (47), 299.

59 Phil. Trans., 1803, 41. For evidence that Henry's work was being done with Dalton's knowledge and interest, see ibid., p. 33.

60 New System, 183.

61 Phil. Trans. (1803), 274276. A March date for this “Appendix to Mr. William Henry's Paper” seems most likely, as the paper preceding it in the Phil. Trans. was read on 24 February, and the one following it on 23 April.

62 Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 55. A paper providing supporting evidence for the theory of mixed gases from work on diffusion was read to the Lit. and Phil. in January, but the experimental work was apparently done before September 1802. (Ibid., 54.) For the changed titles of this paper see Lonsdale, op. cit. (24) and Manchester Memoirs, i (1805), 259.

63 Henry, W. C., op. cit. (11), 47.

64 Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 5758.

65 Nicholson's Journal, iv (1803), 220224.

66 Ibid., v (1803), 34–36.

67 Recorded in Dalton's “Expenses of Journeys”, p. 25 (see reference 23).

68 Gee, , Coward, and Harden, , op. cit. (15), 4.

69 Jones, B., The Royal Institution (London, 1871), 216.

70 Nicholson's Journal, vi (1803), 118120. This note again illustrates Dalton's early interest in chemistry, for he refers to (p. 119) “…the great service that Dr. Kirwan has rendered to meteorology and chemistry, and my own obligations to him on those accounts…” For Dalton's reading of Kirwan in 1799, see Greenaway, op. cit. (28).

71 When read, the paper was entitled “On the Absorption of Gases by Water”—Lonsdale, op. cit. (24); when published, “On the Absorption of Gases by Water and other Liquids”—Manchester Memoirs, i (1805), 271. See also reference 56. These alterations naturally raise the question of how trustworthy a guide to Dalton's 1803 paper the 1805 printed version is. I shall assume the 1805 version to adequately reflect Dalton's 1803 thought, as his notebooks appear to support such an interpretation.

72 Manchester Memoirs, i (1805), 286.

73 Op. cit. (4).

74 Quoted from a paper Dalton read to the Lit. and Phil. in 1830. (See Thackray, op. cit. (3).) Dalton's dates appear to be two or three days out.

75 See Thackray, op. cit. (5).

* my italics.

76 Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 4546.

77 Thus there is no record of any enquiry made by Dalton to provide evidence for his 1807 assertions about the relations of salts and sub-salts. See below.

78 See Thackray, op. cit. (3).

79 Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 35; Nash, L. K., op. cit. (4), 104105.

80 Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 5960. His researches embraced ether, alcohol, and charcoal, as well as the carbon oxides and “carb. hyd.”.

81 Apart from his 1797 paper (reference 39), William Henry published work on these gases in Nicholson's Journal, xi (1805), 6574 and xix (1808), 149–153; and also Phil. Trans. (1808), 282303 and (1821), 136–161.

82 Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 60.

83 Manchester Memoirs, i (1805), 296316.

84 Ibid., 405. The controversy resulting from Gough's letter is considered in my Isis article (reference 5).

85 New System, Preface, p. v.

86 Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 4344.

87 Nicholson's Journal, xxix (1811), 143151.

88 See Thackray, op. cit. (3), in which I have attempted to reconstruct the syllabus for the course.

89 Manchester Memoirs, i (1805), 405424.

90 Henry, W. C., op. cit. (11), 50.

91 Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1800–1863) (London, 1867–1872), ii, 133.

92 Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 61.

93 (Edinburgh, 1804), iii, 314–317. Dalton is referred to as “…This excellent philosopher, distinguished by the simplicity and decisiveness of his experiments, and the happy talent of deducing from them general and important principles…”

94 Dalton, J., Nicholson's Journal, viii (1804), 145149; Philosophical Magazine, xix (1804), 7983.Henry, W., Nicholson's Journal, viii (1804), 297301; Philosophical Magazine, xix (1804), 193196.

95 Lonsdale, op. cit. (24). The date of its reading was probably August 17, two weeks after the date Lonsdale gives.

96 Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 6263.

97 Thomson, T., op. cit. (10), ii, 289292.

98 Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 6364.

99 Ibid., 65.

100 Nash, L. K., op. cit. (4), 114115.

101 Letter of 14 July 1804; quoted in Thackray, op. cit. (3).

102 Quoted from Dalton's prospectus for the course, dated 2 January 1805. Reproduced by Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 6667.

103 See Thackray, op. cit. (5).

104 The whole syllabus is reproduced in Thackray, op. cit. (3).

105 Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 1617. The quotations come from Dalton's lectures in 1810/11.

106 The two tables appear on pages 41 and 65 of Roscoe and Harden, op. cit. (10). The reasons for believing that the second table dates from 1805 not 1804 are set out in Thackray, op. cit. (5).

107 New System, 188–189.

108 This is apparent from the second table. Three of the fifteen gases listed have particles of the same size!

109 See Partington, J. R. and Wheeler, T. S., The Life and Work of William Higgins (London, 1960).

110 Henry, W. C., op. cit. (11), 64.

111 Lonsdale, , op. cit. (24).

112 Nicholson's Journal, xiii (1806), 377380.

113 Op. cit. (10), 71.

114 Ibid., 74.

115 Gee, , Coward, and Harden, , op. cit. (15), 8.

116 Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 7677.

117 Roscoe, , op. cit. (26), 166167.

118 See Thackray, op. cit. (3). The lectures took place in “Dr. Thomson's Class Room” and began on 2 April.

119 See e.g. Nash, L. K., op. cit. (4), 114; and Guerlac, H., op. cit. (5), 553.

120 Thomson, T., A System of Chemistry (3rd ed., Edinburgh, 1807). The “dedication” is dated 5 May 1807. See especially Vol. iii, pp. 424–628.

121 Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 141143. Thomson's letter is dated 8 March 1807.

122 Op. cit. (5).

123 Nicholson's Journal, viii (1804), 280293.

124 Thomson's 1807 letter to Dalton (see reference 121) implies an earlier correspondence, of which I have now traced one letter. See “Fragmentary Remains of John Dalton. Part I: Letters”, Annals of Science (in the press). For T. C. Hope, who succeeded to Joseph Black's chair at Edinburgh, see Partington, J. R., A History of Chemistry (London, 1961-, iii, 721722. For extracts from his correspondence with Dalton see Roscoe and Harden, op. cit. (10).

125 Henry, W. C., op. cit. (35).

126 See Henry, W., An Epitome of Chemistry (4th ed., Edinburgh, 1806), preface p. viii.

127 See Nicholson's Journal, xix (1808), 149153.

128 Roscoe, and Harden, , op. cit. (10), 142143.

129 Phil. Trans. (1808), 6395.

130 Thomson, T., op. cit. (120), iii, 425.

131 Thomson merely altered his 1807 footnote to “Mr. Dalton has not yet published a detailed account of his hypothesis, though he has noticed it in the 1st Volume of his New System of Chemical Philosophy…”: see A System of Chemistry (4th ed., Edinburgh, 1810), iii, 441.

132 See Thomson, T., op. cit. (10), ii, 286, and contrast this with his detailed account of their 1804 meeting.

133 New System, preface, p. vi.

134 Neville, R. G., op. cit. (1), Plate 1

* A considerably abbreviated version of this paper was presented at the Summer Meeting of the Society on 25 June 1965.

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