John Dalton

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John Dalton

John Dalton (September 6, 1766 – July 27, 1844) was an English chemist and physicist, born at Eaglesfield. He is most well known for his advocacy of the atomic theory and his research into color blindness.

Atomic theory

In 1800 he became a secretary of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, and in the following year he presented the important paper or series of papers, entitled Experimental Essays on the constitution of mixed gases; on the pressure of steam and other vapors at different temperatures, both in a vacuum and in air; on evaporation; and on the thermal expansion of gases.

The second of these essays opens with the striking remark,

"There can scarcely be a doubt entertained respecting the reducibility of all elastic fluids of whatever kind, into liquids; and we ought not to despair of affecting it in low temperatures and by strong pressures exerted upon the unmixed gases further."

After describing experiments to ascertain the pressure of steam at various points between 0 ° and 100°C (32° and 212°F), he concluded from observations on the vapor pressure of six different liquids, that the variation of vapor pressure for all liquids is equivalent, for the same variation of temperature, reckoning from vapor of any given pressure.

In the fourth essay he remarks,

"I see no sufficient reason why we may not conclude that all elastic fluids under the same pressure expand equally by heat and that for any given expansion of mercury, the corresponding expansion of air is proportionally something less, the higher the temperature. It seems, therefore, that general laws respecting the absolute quantity and the nature of heat are more likely to be derived from elastic fluids than from other substances."

He thus enunciated Gay-Lussac's law, stated some months later by Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac. In the two or three years following the reading of these essays, he published several papers on similar topics, that on the absorption of gases by water and other liquids (1803), containing his law of partial pressures.

The most important of all Dalton's investigations are those concerned with the atomic theory in chemistry, with which his name is inseparably associated. It has been proposed that this theory was suggested to him either by researches on ethylene (olefiant gas) and methane (carburetted hydrogen) or by analysis of nitrous oxide (protoxide of azote) and nitrogen dioxide (deutoxide of azote), both views resting on the authority of Thomas Thomson. However, a study of Dalton's own laboratory notebooks, discovered in the rooms of the Lit & Phil[1], concluded that so far from Dalton being led to the idea, that chemical combination consists in the interaction of atoms of definite and characteristic weight, by his search for an explanation of the law of multiple proportions, the idea of atomic structure arose in his mind as a purely physical concept, forced upon him by study of the physical properties of the atmosphere and other gases. The first published indications of this idea are to be found at the end of his paper on the absorption of gases already mentioned, which was read on October 21, 1803 though not published till 1805.

Here he says:

"Why does not water admit its bulk of every kind of gas alike? This question I have duly considered, and though I am not able to satisfy myself completely I am nearly persuaded that the circumstance depends on the weight and number of the ultimate particles of the several gases."

He proceeds to give what has been quoted as his first table of atomic weights, but in his laboratory notebooks there is an earlier one dated 1803 in which he sets out the relative weights of the atoms of a number of substances, derived from analysis of water, ammonia, carbon dioxide, etc. by chemists of the time.

It appears, then, that confronted with the problem of calculating the relative diameter of the atoms of which, he was convinced, all gases were...
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