For centuries, philosophers and scientists have been vainly trying to look deeper into matter of things. At the beginning of the 19th century, with the rapid development of chemistry, the need for better atomic theory became particularly evident, and John Dalton seemed to be the first and the only one to have looked deeper into what other scientists had been unable to explain. An English Quaker, John Dalton was the first to use meteorological and physical knowledge as the basis for his atomic assumptions. He was never married but his life signified a turning point in the slow human movement toward a better understanding of matter.
ScienceThis paper will review Dalton’s achievements through the prism of his biography, historical setting, experimental basis, and the impact he has produced on the development of atomic science. In general, Dalton has turned his atomic calculating system into a real theoretical innovation – the innovation that has predetermined the future course of the atomic theory’s development up to the modern times.
For centuries, philosophers and scientists have been vainly trying to look deeper into matter of things. At the beginning of the 19th century, with the rapid development of chemistry, the need for better atomic theory became particularly evident, and John Dalton seemed to be the first and the only one to have looked deeper into what other scientists had been unable to explain. An English Quaker, John Dalton was the first to use meteorological and physical knowledge as the basis for his atomic assumptions. He was never married but his life signified a turning point in the slow human movement toward a better understanding of the structure of matter. This paper will review Dalton’s achievements through the prism of his biography, historical setting, experimental basis, and the impact he has produced on the development of atomic science. In general, Dalton has turned his atomic calculating system into a real theoretical innovation – the innovation that has predetermined the future course of the atomic theory’s development up to the modern times.
John Dalton is frequently referred to as “the unassuming middle-class Quaker who provided chemistry with its first coherent and quantitative atomic theory” (Weber, 2000). He was born in Eaglesfield in 1766. His village school experience planted the seeds of his scientific interest, and since the beginning of the 1780s Dalton has been increasingly involved into meteorological research. In 1781, Dalton moved to Kendal to teach in the local Quaker school along with his brother. There he began his meteorological journal that has later led him to the discovery of revolutionary atomic laws (Weber, 2000). He was interested in the structure of atmospheric gases and was trying to explain the structure of matter through the prism of gas solubility. His personal life was not full of events; he was never married and lived frugally, without anyone’s support. His financial income was limited to his earnings as a professor of Mathematics; later, he became a private tutor in his own Mathematical Academy in Manchester (Weber, 2000). In 1808 he published his famous work on atomic theory. Between 1817 and 1844 he presided over the Manchester Literary and Philosophic Society, and was almost compelled to accept the Royal Society’s medal for his scientific discoveries in 1826. In 1837 Dalton survived a damaging stroke, which left his speech impaired. On July 26, 1844, another stroke killed the scientist (Weber, 2000).
The idea of atomic structure of matter was not new to Dalton. Ancient Greece was the first to discover the signs of atomic structure of matter: in his work, Lucretius “produced the longest and most lucid account of classical atomism in his poem De Nerum natura” (Weber, 2000; Siegfried, 2002). Lucretius viewed universe as the multiplicity of small particles that were indivisible by nature and collided mechanically under the impact of unknown natural forces. Later, under the influence of atheism followed by the Middle Age of Christianity, atomism was rejected and put into scientific oblivion. With the rise of Renaissance, atomism was revived: Robert Boyle, Daniel Sennert, and Pierre Gassendi were the pioneers of contemporary atomic research (Weber, 2000). Those natural philosophers commonly assumed that substances were fundamentally composed of unknown smaller particles, and that compounds were characterized by constant and definite proportions between their constituent elements (Rocke, 2005). Dalton was born and lived at times of unbelievable popularity of Newton’s theory. Finally, Dalton used Newtonian assumptions and his own meteorological observations as the basis for his atomic discoveries.
Historians of science lack unanimous agreement upon the origins of Dalton’s atomic beliefs. However, it is clear that Dalton’s theory was rooted in Newtonian physics and his personal meteorological observations. In his book Siegfried (2002) suggests that Dalton “was wrestling with problems in meteorology, the evaporation and condensation of water, and behavior of mixed gases generally and their thermal behavior”. On the basis of Newtonian physics, and as a result of numerous experiments with CO and NO gases, Dalton has created a mechanical model of gaseous state (Siegfried, 2002; Rocke, 2005). Dalton was particularly interested in Newton’s proposition XXIII, which referred to the role of distance between separate particles and directly supported Boyle’s ideal gas law. In simple terms, and from the viewpoint of meteorology, Dalton was trying to explain how and why atmospheric gases of different densities were uniformly mixed (Siegfried, 2002). With the help of CH (ethylene), Dalton was able to calculate the weight of carbon and its proportionate relation to the weight of oxygen. His cross-checks led him to creating a whole system of atomic weights diagrams, and in 1808 he was finally able to declare that “all matter composed of a great number of extremely small particles or atoms… chemical analysis and synthesis are merely the separation of atoms from one another, or their union” (Levere, 1993).
Despite the falsity of Dalton’s belief into indivisibility of atoms, his atomic theory has laid the foundation for the future development of elementary particles science. In 1854, German scientist Justus von Leibig said that “we who now stand in the presence of the science as it is now constituted, can scarcely conceive how it would have developed itself without Dalton’s hypothesis” (Levere, 1993). Beyond proving the fact of atoms’ existence, Dalton has actually paved the way to the development of the new system of atomic calculations. Dalton was able to deny the validity of Avogadro’s assumption that equal volumes of different gases always contained the same number of gas molecules (Rocke, 2005). Dalton has provided significant evidence to the fact that whatever rearrangements atoms could undergo, their total weight remained unchanged (Weber, 2000). Dalton’s scientific analysis has created a whole set of standards to which modern scientists have to conform. “Dalton’s theory has completely transformed chemical composition, from a chaos of unorganized empirical knowledge into a highly rational science centered on the concept of atomic weight” (Siegfried, 2002). Despite the fact that later scientists have gone far beyond the limits of Daltonian ideas, he was the one to form the conceptual basis for understanding the essence of everything material around us.
John Dalton’s way to atomic discovery was long and thorny; however, he was able to avoid the majority of pitfalls that had earlier prevented scientists from exploring deeper into the nature of matter. Dalton’s discovery is unique in a sense that it was made not by a chemist, but a physicist who was looking for the ways to explain purely physical processes. Dalton was particularly interested in the structure of gases, and his gradual transition from physics to chemistry has later come to signify the critical scientific revolution, which gave birth to the infinite number of atomic discoveries. He was known for his scientific reason and prudence, and has actually prepared the ground for the future scientific harvests.
Levere, T. (1993). Affinity and matter: elements of chemical philosophy 1800-1865.
Rocke, A.J. (2005). In search of El Dorado: John Dalton and the origins of the atomic theory.
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Siegfried, R. (2002). From elements to atoms. DIANE Publishing.
Weber, A.S. (2000). Nineteenth century science. Broadview Press.