John Dalton

For this week’s #MyLocalMuseum theme of ‘Tales from Long Ago’, we are shining a light on Quaker scientist and Cumbrian John Dalton (1766-1844). This chemist, physicist, and meteorologist is best known for his theory of atoms and for his research into colour blindness – a disability he personally suffered from.

John Dalton’s background

Dalton was born in 1766 at Eaglesfield, near Cockermouth, in Cumberland. His father was a poor weaver who gave him an education up until an age where he could be sent to study with the Quaker John Fletcher, who ran a private school in the village of Pardshaw Hall, nearby. Dalton’s family was too poor to be able to support him for long. At the age of ten he had to begin earning his living by entering the service of the wealthy local Quaker, Elihu Robinson.

From the age of fifteen, John moved to help his brother Jonathan to run the Friends’ school in Kendal – Stramongate School. He carried on in this role for twelve years. After this, at the age of 27, he took up the position of Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at the ‘New College’, a dissenting academy, in Manchester. He stayed on in this capacity until the age of 34, when the institution’s dire financial circumstances forced him to resign and become a private tutor.

John Dalton
Modern-day colour blindness test

John Dalton the Scientist

John Dalton’s interest in meteorology and mathematics stemmed from his time with Elihu Robinson, who was a capable meteorologist and instrument maker. At the age of 21, in 1787, he started his meteorological diary which ended up lasting for 57 years and containing 200,000 entries. He visited the Lake District on yearly holidays and systematically climbed the mountains to estimate their height, which he did with a barometer. Prior to the release of the first Ordinance Survey map in 1860, Dalton was rare authority on the height of mountains in the area.

At the age of twenty-six, John Dalton bought what he thought were sober blue stockings for his mother’s birthday. He was truly astonished to be told that they were red. It was in this way that he identified his colour-blindness which later became popularly known as Daltonism. He figured out that, as his brother had the same issue, the condition must be hereditary.

Dalton’s work in chemistry, including his 1804 Law of Multiple Proportions, led to the 1807 development of his Atomic Theory. This theory was the discovery that made him famous and it lasted unaltered for about a century.

Dalton also invented chemical symbols that he arranged into a table. Part of the tapestry panel design (main image) shows a portion of his well-known table of atomic symbols and their atomic weights. One of the symbols shown represents Azote, which was the old term for nitrogen.

Dalton is widely commemorated in the field of science, including his blue plaque in Manchester and on The Moon – where the ‘Dalton’ lunar crater is named after him.

John Dalton
Sketch portrait of the scientist John Dalton

John the Quaker

Dalton kept his simple Quaker ways, always wearing Quaker dress and using “plain language”. He did, however, enjoy a good meal and thought that music should be a part of Quaker worship.

Dalton never married and was said to have a forthright manner, with few social graces. Nevertheless, people described him as having a fundamental kindliness. Dalton had a very Quaker-like sense of duty, responsibility and fairness. He cleaned his own laboratory and lit the fires each morning. He even found the time to give free lessons in maths to bright children.

John Dalton was such a popular figure that, when he died, his body lay in state in Manchester Town Hall. Over the course of 4 days, 40,000 people passed the coffin to pay their respects. After his funeral nearly 100 carriages followed him to the burial ground, surely a unique Quaker funeral.

Further Information

Check out these blog posts to find out more:

Our magazine digitisation project

About Stramongate School at the outbreak of WW1

Sports at Stramongate School during the war years

Supporting the Quaker Tapestry

We hope you have enjoyed reading our blog and gained an insight into the incredible scientific discoveries of John Dalton. More insights into the characters associated with Stramongate School will be forthcoming as we continue to digitise the school magazine.

We couldn’t accept and care for these wonderful artefacts without our dedicated Care and Conservation team. However we need your help to…

– Create an improved database of the extensive Quaker Tapestry collection of supplementary items

– Develop best practice of the Care and Conservation volunteers through further training

Your donation will help us achieve our goals and ensure the longevity of the exhibition and collection. Please consider making a donation

Quaker Tapestry Facts

The colourful tapestry panels measure 63.5cm x 53.3cm and are made using a mix of five ancient stiches and a new one, invented for the project. Embroiderers around the world now use the ‘Quaker Stitch’.

World traveller and writer Alexander McCall Smith, says they’re one of the ‘six best tapestries’ to see in the world.

The panels help you find out about famous scientists, engineers, bankers, botanists and non-conformists who pioneered industrial welfare, fair trade, prison reform, peace work and anti-slavery initiatives. Many were Cumbrians.

Begun in 1981 and completed in 1996, they’re the work of 4,000 men, women and children from around the world. Some of the panels made journeys of thousands of miles as they passed from one group of people to another.

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“Our tutor was excellent, explained the techniques clearly with slow demonstrations and very patient with participants.”

Lovely to do something creative