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John Dalton Papers

Date range: 1788–1845.

John Dalton (1766–1844), pioneer of chemical science, was born near Cockermouth in Cumberland, but moved to Manchester in 1793 to take up a post as professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Manchester Academy. He spent the rest of his life in the city.

For many years he used a room at the house of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society as a study and laboratory.

Dalton made significant contributions to meteorology, colour vision and the study of gases and vapours, but his reputation rests on his development of the atomic theory and the publication of the first table of atomic weights, ‘the great foundation stone in chemical science’.

He first expounded the theory in 1803 and developed it more fully in the first volume of A New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808–10). He has been described as ‘one of the first of the modern type of professional scientist… he brought about as profound a change in the nature of physical science as any one man has ever done.’1

The archive consists of over two hundred items, although these are but the remnant of a much larger collection destroyed in an air-raid in 1940.

There are forty scientific manuscripts, including lecture notes and papers relating to Dalton’s discoveries, laboratory notes and meteorological observations. 

Non-scientific items include:

  • eleven letters written by Dalton to various correspondents, 1788–1842
  • fourteen volumes of personal accounts
  • papers relating to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society
  • fifty-four letters to Dalton, 1812–44
  • accounts of his executors, 1844–45
  • papers relating to the Dalton Testimonial Committee, 1833–42

The collection is of fundamental importance for studies of the history of science, and in particular the development of chemistry in the early nineteenth century.

1Frank Greenaway, ‘Dalton, John (1766–1844)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

Finding aids

  • The papers are not separately listed but are included in A.L. Smyth, John Dalton 1766-1844: a Bibliography of Works By and About Him, revised edition (Manchester, 1997).
  • See also note in Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 62 (1979-80), pp. 259-60.
  • Diana Leitch and Alfred Williamson, The Dalton Tradition (Manchester, 1991).


The John Rylands Library

Using the reading rooms in the John Rylands Library