John Dalton: Greatest Accomplishments
Here are the major accomplishments of John Dalton, the renowned English chemist and meteorologist most famous for giving the world of chemistry the groundbreaking atomic theory.
Trained himself informally in a host of scientific disciplines
Born into a not so affluent Quaker family, John Dalton could not afford to study medicine or law. Besides, his family’s association with English Dissenters – a religious group of the 17th and 18th centuries that separated from the Church of England – made it difficult for him to enroll in any English university.
Therefore, much of the training that Dalton received came informally, as he was mentored by scientist John Gough and amateur meteorologist Elihus Robinson. His time working as a mathematics and natural philosophy teacher in Manchester went a long way in refining his knowledge in a host of scientific disciplines.
Recorded about a quarter of a million meteorological observations
Although he is most known for the monumental contributions he made in chemistry, John Dalton was also a very good weather scientist. His interest in meteorology and weather phenomena in general heightened not just because he lived in Lake District, a mountainous region, but because of the brilliant guidance he received from his mentor meteorologist Elihu Robinson. He received tutelage on how to make weather instruments for example.
Dalton would go on to respond to questions people had about a host of scientific problems, from mathematics to meteorology, in acclaimed almanacs like the Gentleman’s Diary and The Ladies’ Diary.
Starting around his early 20s, Dalton took to writing down his weather observations in a diary. In the course of his life, he made close to a quarter of a million observations.
John Dalton made very important meteorological observations
John Dalton is credited with rediscovering the theory of atmospheric circulation (by English meteorologist George Hadley). In this theory, which is also known as Hadley cell, scientist try to measure atmospheric circulation on a global scale that sees air rising near the Equator before moving poleward at around 15 kilometers above the earth’s surface and then descending to the subtropics and finally making its way to the equator.
Authored a number of very important essays
In the year that he began his teaching appointment at the New College in Manchester, England, he published his first and one of his most famous works, Meteorological Observations and Essays (1793). The book presented his observation of meteorological subjects. It served as an important foundation for his future works and research. The book also included some of the weather observations made by his friends and mentors John Gough and Peter Crosthwaite.
Although the book didn’t receive as much attention at the time, it is credited with advancing meteorology from an amateur pastime activity to a full scientific discipline, moving it away from a subject of general interest. Historians and chemists today opine that Dalton penned down in the book some truly remarkable, original ideas.
Discovered that the atmosphere was a mixture of elements
His familiarity with the mountainous terrain of the Lake District made it easy for him to make periodic observations of the weather on the hills. Dalton would take measurements of the humidity and temperature as he made his way up the hills. Along with his assistant and fellow meteorologist Jonathan Otley, Dalton was a very influential figure when it came to the region’s geography and atmospheric conditions.
In one of his research works, he discovered how the atmosphere was a physical mixture of about 80% nitrogen and 20% oxygen. This flew against then-held idea that the atmosphere was not a specific compound of elements.
Conducted experimental research on pressure of steam and mixed gasses
In the same period that he was appointed secretary of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, in 1800/01, John Dalton submitted a number of “Experimental Essays” on mixed gasses. He explored how different temperatures in a vacuum and in air affected the pressure of steam. Dalton also presented some findings on the thermal expansion of gasses. His essays were published in 1802 in the Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester.
First Research publication on color blindness
For quite some time, the eye defect color blindness was known as Daltonism. The name was chosen in honor of the scientist John Dalton who carried out a number of research works into color blindness. It is also a known fact that Dalton and his brother suffered from this eye defect.
In 1794, he wrote his first work on this topic titled “Extraordinary facts relating to the vision of colors”. According to Dalton, people with color blindness suffered from a discoloration of a natural liquid medium in the eyeball. He also came to the conclusion that color blindness was a hereditary illness since he and his brother were color blind.
Dalton’s atomic theory formed the basis for the study of modern chemistry
Heavily influenced by the works of Scottish chemist and mineralogist Thomas Thomson and Irish chemist Bryan Higgins, John Dalton’s atomic theory in chemistry is perhaps his greatest contribution to chemistry.
Historians reason that Dalton took inspiration from earlier works on ethylene (also known as olefiant gas), methane, nitrogen dioxide and nitrous oxide. The English chemist would go on to come out with a method to find the relative atomic masses of elements, an important building block in the field of chemistry.
Proposed a method of calculating relative atomic weights for elements
Dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks, it was long held that atoms of all kinds of matter are alike. Dalton went against the tide and showed to the scientific community that atoms of different elements varied in size and mass. Going against established view of his era, his works also showed that every element had its own type of atom. This feat of his became an important pillar in atomic theory.
John Dalton basically sought out to find the relative masses of each different kind of atom. His research on the relative weights of particles took him into an area never ventured into by anyone up until that time. He measured the masses of various elements, including hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen.
The first chemist in history to express the Law of Multiple Proportions
The law of multiple proportions, commonly called Dalton’s Law, states that when two elements form more than one compound, the masses of one element that combine with a fixed mass of the other are in a ratio of small whole numbers. This observation was first expressed in 1804 by John Dalton. Although there are some limitations to the law of multiple proportions, the law still proved to be crucial in furthering studies in chemistry, particularly organic chemistry.
Regardless, the groundbreaking nature of his law helped earn him earn several praises, including being described in some circles as the “Father of Modern Chemistry”.
Dalton was the first scientist to use the term “atom”
John Dalton’s name in the annals of history is boosted by the fact that he was the first scientist to use the term “atom”. Derived from the Greek word ‘atomos’, which means “cannot be divided further”, an atom is commonly described as the smallest particle of matter.
Other notable achievements of John Dalton
- In 1822, John Dalton was elected a fellow at the Royal Society.
- The Royal Society of Edinburgh awarded him an honorary degree from the University of Oxford.
- He was appointed a foreign associate of the French Academy of Sciences (Académie des Sciences).
- In 1817, he was appointed the president of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (“Lit & Phil”).
- John Dalton was honored in 1834 when he was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Interesting facts about John Dalton, the discoverer of the atomic theory
- John Dalton was born into a Quaker family made up of craftsmen. For example, his grandfather, Jonathan Dalton, was a shoemaker. Dalton’s father, Joseph Dalton, was a weaver. On the other hand, his mother, Deborah Greenup, was from a very wealthy Quaker family.
- He grew up with three siblings.
- Dalton attended John Fletcher’s Quaker grammar school in Eaglesfield, England. Due to some financial constraints, he sometimes assisted his brother in teaching duties at a Quaker school.
- John Dalton’s most significant mentors were Elihus Robinson and John Gough. Robinson was a scientist and mathematician from Eaglesfield; while Gough was an amateur meteorologist in the Lake District. From the latter, he learnt subjects like Greek, Latin and mathematics. He also learnt how to make and use of meteorological instruments.
- In 1793, he was appointed a math and natural philosophy tutor at New College in Manchester.
- In 1838, his paper, “On the Arseniates and Phosphates”, was rejected by the Royal Society.
- John Dalton, aged 77, died of stroke on July 27, 1844 in Manchester, England.