Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Philosophical Progress of the Cumbrian Chemist

                    If Henry Cavendish had all the advantages of rank, fortune and privilege, the same cannot be said of one of his near contemporaries, John Dalton. He was born at Eaglesfield, near Cockermouth in Cumberland (now Cumbria), the English Lake District, in 1766. His parents were members of the Society of Friends (the Quakers); his father, Joseph, was an impoverished woollen weaver, described as ‘feckless’, who inherited a small farm from his father, and his mother, Deborah, (neé Greenup) came from a family of respectable yeomen. 

John Dalton

John was the youngest of the three surviving six children born to Joseph and Deborah, and began his education at a local school, where his passion for learning attracted the attention of Mr Elihu Robinson, a Quaker gentleman, who took young John under his wing and provided him with extra tuition, particularly in mathematics. John could only attend in winter, as in the summers he had to work on his father’s farm. When the schoolmaster, Mr Fletcher, retired in 1788, his place was taken by John, at the astonishing age of twelve. He had discipline problems with the older boys, many of whom were his own age, and who frequently wanted to fight with him in the adjoining graveyard. He received about five shillings a week in penny fees, and supplemented his income by selling stationery, but the school was closed after two years and John began working in the fields. 

Card advertising Daltons' school, Keswick

In 1781, he moved to Keswick, where he joined his brother Jonathan, teaching in a school that they took over when the master (and their cousin) George Bewley retired. Their sister, Mary, acted as housekeeper, and over sixty pupils, both day pupils and boarders, attended, earning a profit of one hundred guineas in the first year. Their parents would frequently visit, bringing home-grown produce, walking the forty-four miles from Eaglesfield to Keswick in a single day. John met John Gough, the blind polymath, at Kendal and received instruction in Greek, Latin and French, together with more advanced mathematics from him. Gough also encouraged him to keep a meteorological journal, which he did for 57 years, making over 200,000 entries. At Gough’s recommendation, John took the position of Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at New College, Manchester, in 1793, and the following year he became a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester. In October 1794, he presented a paper to the society, Extraordinary Facts relating to the Vision of Colours, in which he described colour-blindness, discovered in his brother and himself whilst undertaking botanical studies, which still carries the alternative name Daltonism. 

Dalton with a Rain Gauge

John had bought his mother some silk stockings as a birthday present, thinking them to be dark-bluish drab, when in fact the devout Quaker lady was presented with a pair of bright scarlet stockings, to which she responded 
Thou hast bought me a pair of grand hose, John, but what made thee fancy such a bright colour? Why, I can never show myself at meeting in them.” 
He returned to his observations of flowers and found his descriptions of them to be false. 

Test for colour-blindness (you should see 74)

His salary at the College was £80 per year, from which £27 10s were deducted for rent and commons, but Dalton lived frugally on the remainder. All the tutors were Dissenters and the College admitted those students who were barred from the universities on religious grounds. Not unlike a modern lecturer, Dalton had twenty-one hours contact time with his students, and after his lecture preparation time, he had leisure to spend in the small college library and the large public library of Manchester. He spent six years in the post before leaving and taking the position of the Secretary of the Literary and Philosophical Society, becoming Vice-President in 1808 and President in 1817. 

Dalton's Notebook

As a Quaker, Dalton had few vices but he enjoyed a game of bowls on a Thursday afternoon at the Dog and Partridge inn, where he played in the team, drank his tea and smoked his churchwarden pipe – he said that he liked to take his Saturday half-holiday in the middle of the week. He was of moderate height and as one would expect of a ex-Cumbrian farmhand, physically strong; he dressed formally, in the typical Quaker garb, in good quality matching clothes, very neat and tidy. He retained his broad Cumbrian accent, was quite gruff although well-mannered, and enjoyed socialising with friends and the Johns family, with whom he lodged. He rose at eight and after a light breakfast went to his laboratory, took lunch at one then back to work until tea at five, and supper at nine, after which he would come out of the laboratory, smoke a pipe with Rev. Johns and talk about the day. 

He took his holidays back home in the Lakes, where he enjoyed hill walking on the Fells, climbing the mountains and the ‘right gude crack’ with old friends. Although he ‘never found the time’ to marry, he appreciated the company of the ladies but never entered into a romantic relationship, dedicating himself instead to science. His great legacy is his atomic theory, which developed from his enquiries into the nature of gases. It deserves a post of its own. 

Dalton's Atomic Symbols

Monsieur Pelletan of Paris came to Manchester in 1820 with the express purpose of meeting le philosophe, expecting to find him in his professor’s chair surrounded by adoring adepts. After much difficulty, he eventually found the distinguished Dalton helping a young boy to write numbers on a slate. Greatly surprised, Pelletan inquired if he was, indeed, speaking to Monsieur Dalton the physicist. “Yes,” came the reply, “wilt thou sit down till I put this lad right about his arithmetic.” 

Bust of John Dalton

Another story is that he was called to the Royal Court, to meet George VI. As a Quaker, Dalton would not wear court dress but a compromise was found, wherein he could wear the scarlet academic gown of a Doctor of Law from Oxford. Noticing the odd garb, the King asked who it was, to be told it was Dr Dalton, the Manchester philosopher. He went over to him and said, 
Well, Dr. Dalton, how are you getting on in Manchester – all quiet, I suppose?” 
Well, I don't know," replied Dalton to the King, "just middlin', I think.” 

John Dalton and autograph

He would not suffer fools, however, and when pressed about a particular issue by a troublesome inquirer, he responded with, 
I have written a book on that subject, and if thou wishest to inform thyself about the matter, thou canst buy my book for 3s. 6d.” 
In 1822, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1833 he was granted a government pension of £150 per year, raised in 1836 to £300. In later life, his health declined and in July 1844, after a series of strokes, he died at Manchester, aged 77. 

John Dalton

His body was laid in state in a darkened room in Manchester Town Hall, where 40,000 people came to pay their respects, and a procession of over a hundred carriages attended his funeral. Policemen wore tokens of mourning and the shops and warehouses along the route were closed in respect, as hundreds of people walked to Ardwick cemetery, where his remains were laid to rest beneath a red granite memorial. There is a John Dalton Street in Manchester city centre, university buildings in the city’s universities are named after him, as is a crater on the moon. 

Dalton collecting Marsh Gas - mural in Manchester Town Hall by Ford Madox Brown

Much of Dalton’s original work was destroyed by a German bomb, during an air raid on Manchester on Christmas Eve 1940.

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