Dalton, John 1766 - 1844


The exact date of John Dalton’s birth is not known. His birth was not entered into the Friends Register of Births, or indeed in any other baptismal records of the time. Dalton did make enquiries amongst the local people where he was born without much success and came to the conclusion it must have been in 1766 and probably on September 5th.

Dalton received his early education from his father and at Pardshaw hall Quaker Meeting House, near to where the family lived. At the age of 12 his teacher, John Fletcher, retired and John Dalton took on the role and taught boys and girls of all ages. He only carried on teaching for a short while as he was earning very little money. He spent two years doing farming work before being invited to become an Assistant Teacher and help his brother at a boarding school in Kendal.

The brothers prospered and by 1787 John Dalton advertised a series of lectures on natural philosophy and published the lectures. He spent twelve years teaching in Kendal during which time he continued his own education and investigations. However, he wanted to further his studies. In 1792 the Manchester New College advertised for a teacher of Mathematics and Philosophy, John Dalton was persuaded to apply. He was successful and moved to Manchester in 1792, when he was 26 years old.

He spent 6 years at the college before leaving to take up teaching privately and also to carry on his research in Chemistry. Benjamin Joule, a wealthy brewer wanted Dalton to teach his sons chemistry and in 1834 he was introduced to them as their tutor. One of them James Prescott Joule spent two years, twice a week for an hour learning the basics. Who was later to make a name for himself in another branch of science, physics.

He became a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society in 1794, and where in 1802 his first paper was read “The Proportion of Several Gases or Elastic Fluids Constituting the Atmosphere”. In all during his membership he read 116 papers on a number of subjects, as well as chemistry. His most important contribution to science was the research he carried out in atomic theory in chemistry. He had begun to study the actual physical properties of the atmosphere and other gases, concluding that these elements were made up of extremely small particles called atoms. He thought that the atoms of a given element were of the same size and properties. During this period he also concluded that there were a number of different types of atoms, of varying weights and size, which combined to make up chemical compounds and as a result of this work chemical reactions could be produced by combining or rearranging these different atoms of varying weights to produce the reaction.

He continued to carry on this work while at the same time taking on the role of Secretary of the Literary and Philosophical Society and then later from 1817 until his death in 1844 President of the society. He was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1822, which he accepted. A few years later in 1826 he became the first recipient of the Royal Society's royal medal.