John Dalton: Scientist from Cockermouth

by David Murray on 9 September 2011

in Cockermouth, Cumbria, Kendal, People

John Dalton was one of the scientific giants of the early 19th century. In the 1960s I often attended lectures at the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society on George Street, Manchester. (The “Lit and Phil” still exists, now based at the Manchester Business School). Inside the building great prominence was given to John Dalton, and not far away is one of Manchester’s major city centre thoroughfares, John Dalton Street. Today a University Campus also bears his name. So who was this John Dalton, and what is his connection with Cockermouth in the far north of the Lake District?

John Dalton - Scientist from Cockermouth

John Dalton (1766-1844)

John Dalton was born into a Quaker family at Eaglesfield near Cockermouth in 1766. While still a child he showed great skill at mathematics, and as a young man teaching at a private school in Kendal began to give public lectures on scientific subjects. He moved in 1793 to take up a teaching post at New College, Manchester, an academic establishment set up to serve those who were not members of the Church of England as at that time the country’s few universities were closed to “Dissenters”. The following year he joined the Lit and Phil and later, for almost thirty years up to the time of his death, was its President.

Dalton’s early researches into the behaviour of gases led to what became known as “Dalton’s law of partial pressures”. In the first decade of the nineteenth century he published papers proposing that all matter is made up of minute, indivisible discrete particles and that all such “atoms” of the same elenment are identical. He became renowned worldwide as the developer of the atomic theory of matter.

In the two centuries that have passed since then it has, of course, been discovered that elementary atoms are themselves composed of even smaller entities, but he laid the foundation on which all modern theory of matter is built. He paved the way for successive revolutions in the physical and chemical sciences. He had wide-ranging scientific interests. He was a keen meteorologist (in fact his first published book was on that subject) and also one of the earliest systematic researchers into colour blindness, from which he himself suffered and which became widely known as Daltonism.

John Dalton never married. He lived for many years in George Street at the home of a friend, the Rev. W. Johns. (Was this the evenual home of the Lit and Phil?) He was focused on his work, but did find time to make annual visits north to Cockermouth. Another great son of the Lake District, John Dalton died in 1844. [More on John Dalton].

See also “Cockermouth: More Men of Science.”

More on Cockermouth

Cockermouth on the Around-England blog

The Lake District, West: Cockermouth

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