Atomic Symbols by John Dalton, explanatory of a Lecture given by him to the Members of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution, October 19th, 1835. Manuscript in contemporary (Dalton’s?) hand.

[Machester: 1835].

A manuscript table of atomic symbols, for both elements and compounds, being a contemporary record of Dalton’s lecture on atomic theory delivered to the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution on 19 October, 1835. The printed version of this table, a famous image, was reprinted in W. C. Henry’s Memoirs of the Life and Scientific Researches of John Dalton (1854), and is much reproduced even today. This manuscript version of the table bears similarities to Dalton’s hand, and may be the copy sent to the printer (although there are no printer’s marks), or it may be a record of Dalton’s lecture made by one of the attendees. “The great bulk of Dalton’s manuscript material was destroyed in an air-raid on Manchester in 1940” (Thackray, p. 145). “Dalton made greater use of his symbols in lectures on the atomic theory than in his published works or even in his laboratory note-books … A famous lecture given by Dalton was in October 1835, when he lectured at the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution. The subject was the atomic theory and the audience was issued with a lithographed sheet of atomic symbols. The sheet contains examples of compounds containing from two to ten atoms” (Crosland, pp. 261-2). “Dalton’s chemical atomic theory was the first to give significance to the relative weights of the ultimate particles of all known compounds, and to provide a quantitative explanation of the phenomena of chemical reaction. Dalton believed that all matter was composed of indestructible and indivisible atoms of various weights, each weight corresponding to one of the chemical elements, and that these atoms remained unchanged during chemical processes. Dalton’s work with relative atomic weights prompted him to construct the first periodic table of the elements to formulate laws concerning their combination and to provide schematic representations of various possible combinations of atoms. His equation of the concepts ‘atom’ and ‘chemical element’ was of fundamental importance, as it provided the chemist with a new and enormously fruitful model of reality” (Norman 575). The printed version of this table is extremely rare: OCLC lists only two copies (University of Delaware and Chemical Heritage Foundation). We are not aware of any other contemporary manuscript material by Dalton, or relating to his atomic theory, having appeared on the market.

“John Dalton is well known as the early nineteenth-century English chemist who advocated an atomic theory of chemistry. Closely connected with the atomic theory was a system of symbols in which Dalton denoted the atoms of different elements by circles containing a distinguishing pattern or letter. The important difference between Dalton’s symbols and those used earlier was that the former represented a definite quantity of an element, whilst the latter signified any amount of the substance in question … This quantitative aspect of Dalton’s symbols was inherited by the symbols of Berzelius and they still have this quantitative meaning today … Dalton’s reason for representing atoms by circles was not arbitrary, but rather it was a deliberate attempt to picture the atoms as he imagined they really were. This applies also to the compound atoms which he usually drew symmetrically in accordance with his ideas on the repulsive influence of the atmosphere of caloric surrounding each atom” (Crosland, pp. 256-7).

“In his original paper on the atomic theory in 1803, as well as in his New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808), Dalton used pictorial symbols to illustrate his view of the structure of matter. He borrowed the use of pictures (instead of letters [as advocated by Berzelius]) to represent chemical elements from alchemy, with the important distinction that he meant each individual picture to represent specific quantities of atoms. Further, he placed symbols next to each other in an order which he took to be the actual spatial arrangement of the atom in a molecule … Thomas Thomson first published Dalton’s symbols in the third edition of his System of Chemistry, and the following year Dalton himself presented a table of them in his New System. Despite the typographical problem which pictorial symbols presented, Dalton and Thomson continued to support their use through the 1820s … The most common justification for the continued use of pictorial symbols, despite the prevailing practice of following Berzelian notation on the continent, was its advantage in displaying the spatial configuration of compounds. This argument reflected a more central faith on the part of Dalton and his immediate followers that his atomic theory represented physical reality, and not merely a convenient device for calculating equivalent weights” (Alborn, pp. 440-1).

Born in a small village in the English Lake District, Dalton (1766-1844) moved to Manchester in 1793. After he arrived, he at first taught mathematics and natural philosophy at New College, a dissenting academy, and began observing the behavior of gases, but after six years he resigned. Thereafter he devoted his life to research, which he financed by giving private tuition. By 1800, Dalton had become the secretary of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, and in 1801 he presented the first of a series of papers to the society describing the properties of ‘mixed gases’. These papers laid the foundations of his atomic theory; a paper of 1803 included the first table of atomic weights. In 1808 Dalton began the publication of his great work, A New System of Chemical Philosophy, which set out his atomic theory in detail; it was completed only in 1827.

Smyth’s bibliography (pp. 43-45) records lectures given by Dalton in Manchester on various topics, including meteorology, mechanics, electricity, optics and astronomy, and from the mid 1820s most of these lectures were delivered to the Mechanics’ Institution. However, the 1835 ‘Lecture on the atomic System of Chemistry’ (Henry, p. 123) is his only recorded lecture on atomic theory; it was also his last lecture to the Mechanics’ Institution.

The Manchester Mechanics’ Institution was established on 7 April 1824. The original prospectus of the institution stated: ‘The Manchester Mechanics’ Institution is formed for the purpose of enabling Mechanics and Artisans, of whatever trade they may be, to become acquainted with such branches of science as are of practical application in the exercise of that trade; that they may possess a more thorough knowledge of their business, acquire a greater degree of skill in the practice of it, and be qualified to make improvements and even new inventions in the Arts which they respectively profess. It is not intended to teach the trade of the Machine-maker, the Dyer, the Carpenter, the Mason, or any other particular business, but there is no art which does not depend, more or less, on scientific principles, and to teach what these are, and to point out their practical application, will form the chief object of this Institution.’

“The establishment of societies throughout England, Wales and Scotland, and also in Ireland, having for their object the instruction of working men in the scientific principles upon which the industrial arts are based, was a phenomenon of apparently sudden appearance about the year 1824. Two immediate causes determined the year of origin. After the post-war period of economic and social chaos trade conditions were by that date improving and a two-year trade-boom had begun; and this improvement was accompanied by an abatement of social strife … Secondly, it was not until after 1820 that a group of influential public men had become aware of the success of recent experiments in the education of working men and had been personally associated with at least one of these enterprises” (Tylecote, p. 1).

Alborn, ‘Negating Notation: Chemical Symbols and British Society, 1831-1835,’ Annals of Science 46 (1989), 437-460. Henry, Memoirs of the Life and Scientific researches of John Dalton (1854). Smyth, John Dalton 1766-1844. A Bibliography of works by him and about him (1966). Thackray, ‘Fragmentary remains of John Dalton,’ Annals of Science 22 (1966), 145-174. Tylecote, The Mechanics Institutes of Lancashire and Yorkshire before 1851 (1957). Dibner 44; Horblit 22; Norman 575; PMM 261 (all for Dalton’s New System).



Two leaves (229 x 187mm), written on recto only, horizontal crease where folded, another crease in top left corner.

Item #4943

Price: $3,000.00

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