Atomic Relations: John Dalton

Atomic Relations: John Dalton

A post by guest author Sally Newcomb

Again, I had the pure pleasure of approaching the stacks containing the Wenner Collection. Considering that it is still being catalogued, each approach is an adventure. But something immediately caught my attention: Two red books titled A New System of Chemical Philosophy by John Dalton. These books, volume I and the first part of volume II, are reprints of the famous editions of 1808 and 1827.

Title pages of volumes I and II of A New System of Chemical Philosophy by John Dalton.

Title pages of volumes I and II of A New System of Chemical Philosophy by John Dalton.

Brief notes inside the front covers stating that they belonged to Aaron and Olive Ihde connect them to a notable tradition in the history of chemistry. Aaron J. Ihde (1909-2000) was a distinguished pioneer in the field, both as author and as director of Ph.D. studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Aaron and Olive Ihde signature in book cover

The handwriting is probably that of his wife, Olive, who supported him in all he did, including with his students who comprised much of the next generation of historians of chemistry.

               John Dalton (1766-1844) is best known for two things: his identification of colorblindness in 1792, and his atomic theory. He read a paper before the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in 1794 titled “Extraordinary facts relating to the Vision of Colours with Observations.” It was said that one of his shriveled eyes was still in Dalton Hall at the University of Manchester as of 1962.[1] Searching for an exact date for Dalton’s statement of the atomic theory reveals a complicated sequence, well delineated in Partington, 1962. The history of atomism itself goes back to antiquity. A reference with a good summary of that history is F. Greenaway’s 1966 biography, John Dalton and the Atom, Ithaca: Cornell University Press. While reading Dalton’s experimental history and methods it is not at all obvious how he arrived at the idea of atoms existing in small whole-numbered combinations, derived from his meteorological studies of gas pressures, diffusion, and solubilities. A partial statement of the atomic theory as we know it is:       

1.       Matter consists of small ultimate particles or atoms.

2.       Atoms are indivisible and cannot be created or destroyed.

3.       All atoms of a given element are identical and have the same invariable weight.

4.       Atoms of different elements have different weights

5.       The particle of a compound is formed from a fixed number of atoms of its constituent elements. (Partington 1962, p.784).

The list continues for another six statements. This entire story emerged over a number of years with the input of other familiar names in the history of chemistry, such as William Henry (1775-1836), Thomas Thomson (1773-1852) and others. Henry and Thomson are credited with initial statements of the theory from Dalton’s work before Dalton himself published it in 1808.[2]

Dalton’s theory emerged from many years of his study and meticulous experimentation. Some of his early papers from which his theory derived and from which his compatriots worked are also in the Wenner collection. Searching the shelves we found:

1802: Memoires of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, Vol. V, part II. Printed for Cadell and Davies, London.

This volume contained several of Dalton’s papers, an example of which is “Experimental Essays on the Constitution of Mixed Gases,” read by him at meetings of that Society. The paper that is considered to be the immediate precursor of the more formal statement of the atomic theory is in:

1805: Memoires of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, Second Series. Vol. 1, second series.  Printed for R. Bickerstaff, Strand, London by S. Russell, Manchester.

That paper, with the very first statement of Dalton’s atomic theory, begins on page 271 and is titled “On the Absorption of Gases by Water and Other Liquids,” in eight sections, read on Oct. 21, 1803. 


Left: The first page of "On the Absorption of Gases by Water and other Liquids" by John Dalton; Upper Right: Marbling on cover of Memoirs, Lower Right: Title page of the Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester which contains this article.

Some steps along the way are in the Dalton volume I and its explanation on pages 218 and 219, and on page 352 of volume II.

Left: Plate IV, Upper Right: Explanation of Plate IV on P. 219 of Vol. I, Lower Right: Further explanation on P.352 of Vol II.

Left: Plate IV, Upper Right: Explanation of Plate IV on P. 219 of Vol. I, Lower Right: Further explanation on P.352 of Vol II.

Fortunately for those of us struggling to get to the atomic theory from gas absorption, Greenaway has traced Dalton’s reasoning in his Chapter 7, Dalton’s Atomic Theory: Its Origins, pp. 130-147.

Dalton’s “discovery” was not without controversy--he was accused of taking on earlier work without attribution. An entire succession of experimenters filled in the details over the next decades. But it is a rich story, and one that still challenges us in the movement from the seen to the unseen.

[1] This is according to J.R.Partington’s V.3, 1962, A History of Chemistry, p.760 London, MacMillan and Co., Ltd. I haven’t checked for the eye’s whereabouts in 2019.

[2] W. Henry mentioned it in a short paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1803. T.Thomson gave the first full statement in V.III of the 1807 3rd edition of his textbook, A System of Chemistry, pp.424-429, and 451-452.

About the Author

Sally Newcomb

Sally Newcomb

After raising two excellent children and following her husband overseas several times, Sally Newcomb re-joined the academic world to add to her B.S. in chemistry. This resulted in a master’s degree in geochemistry, and another with the Committee on the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Maryland. Sally taught inorganic chemistry and physical geology at Prince George’s Community College, but retired to write history of the geosciences full time. This resulted in Special Paper 449 with the Geol. Soc. of America and a number of articles, serving as Chair of her GSA division and co-leading a Pardee session on the history of the ophiolite concept, as well being elected a Fellow of GSA. 

Caption: Burning mirror in Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon’s Suppléments à l’Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière, Vol. II, which you can read more about in her article about this set of books. Burning mirrors were used to achieve high temperatures in Buffon’s era.

See all articles by Sally Newcomb

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