The John Dalton Manuscripts

Archive Collection
  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 133 Dalton Mss
  • Dates of Creation
      1781-1845, 1935
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      approx 20 li.m. 133 items Condition: Many of the items are damaged and incomplete due to the effects of fire following enemy action on 24 December 1940, which destroyed the headquarters of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. A number of items are charred, and in some cases, parts of the document have been destroyed or rendered illegible by fire. The papers were subject to major conservation work in 1990-1991 when the papers were deacidified, and some papers were overlaid with fine tissue paper to strengthen them. Most documents were then encapsulated in plastic wallets and placed in new folders. Where the catalogue refers to sheets, this means the polyester container sheets, not the documents.
  • Location
      Collection available at: John Rylands Library, Deansgate.
  • Direct Link

Scope and Content

A collection of the personal and scientific papers of John Dalton. The collection has considerable importance for studies of the history of science, and in particular the development of chemistry in the early 19th century. It is also of more general importance for histories of the Manchester area in this period, due to Dalton's significance as a public figure in Manchester.

The collection consists of over 130 manuscripts and printed items. These include Dalton's manuscript lectures, papers delivered before the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, some of his meteorological records, and a disparate selection of his laboratory notebooks. Non-scientific items include his personal financial records, and the records of the Dalton Testimonial Committee, which solicited funds and commissioned the memorial bust of Dalton, sculpted by Francis Chantrey. Correspondence is not a significant component of the collection, but there are over fifty letters to Dalton, most of which deal with scientific topics; there are fewer of Dalton's own letters, and most of these deal with non-scientific subjects.

Dalton MS 81-84, 86-89 are lecture notes delivered from the early 1790s to the 1830s. Dating of the lectures is difficult, and imprecise, and in some cases Dalton used his notes for more than one series of lectures. W. W. Haldane Gee provides some information on Dalton's lectures which is relevant to these manuscripts ('John Dalton's lectures and lecture illustrations').

Dalton MS 90 to Dalton MS 100 are Dalton's manuscripts of papers delivered primarily to the Lit and Phil between 1801 and 1837. Robert Angus Smith Memoir of John Dalton has a list of these papers.

Mss 101 -126 are Dalton's research notebooks for meteorology, maths, botany and astronomy. Mss 127-140 are Dalton's personal financial records, which include professional as well as domestic expenses. Mss 141-152 are miscellaneous documents, including some records of Dalton's brother, Jonathan, who was a schoolmaster, and continued his brother's practice of recording meteorological data at Kendal..

Mss 155, 163, 181, 182, 184, 185, 187, 188 are letters from Dalton to various correspondents. There are very few of these in the collection, and they mostly concern domestic and family matters. Mss 324-355 are letters received by him, and these are more numerous and deal with a wider range of issues.

Dalton Mss 308, 310-318, 320-322 are documents about Dalton by others or documents received by him, and include the records of the Dalton Testimonial Committee. Manuscripts between Dalton Mss 356 and 366 fall into a category described by Smyth as "Daltoniana" and includes some printed material.

The collection includes facsimiles of two letters from Dalton to Charles Babbage, 15 May 1830 and 7 December 1830, the originals being held at the British Library. Smyth numbered these 157 and 158. Two items not listed by Smith are included and have been classified as Dalton Add MS 1 and 2; their provenance is uncertain, and they include material which does not directly relate to Dalton. Smyth also identified no.85 "Royal Institution lectures 1810" as being in the Library's custody. No evidence has been found to confirm this, and we do not believe it is one of the manuscripts purchased in 1979.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Dalton (1766-1844) was born at Eaglesfield near Cockermouth, Cumbria, the son of a poor Quaker weaver. He attended a Quaker school, and at the age of ten entered the service of a Quaker gentleman, Elihu Robinson, who noted his love of learning. Robinson taught Dalton mathematics, and by the age of twelve Dalton had acquired enough knowledge to set up a school near his home for local children. The school did not prosper and in 1781 he joined his brother Jonathan as a teacher in a school at Kendal, which later they took over on the retirement of the master. Dalton was already spending much time in study and by 1787 he delivered a course of lectures in natural philosophy. He made the acquaintance of a blind scholar, Gough, from whom he learnt about meteorology. Gough encouraged him to keep a meteorological journal and Dalton continued to do this from 1787 to the year of his death.

In 1793, Dalton was appointed professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at New College, Manchester. New College was a Unitarian institution, which provided advanced education for dissenters who were unable to enrol at Oxford or Cambridge. At Manchester, Dalton began to research and write on natural phenomena in a systematic fashion. In October 1794, he was admitted as a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, and he wrote 117 papers for the Society over the next fifty years. The first of these, 'Extraordinary Facts relating to the Vision of Colours' described in detail for the first time, the condition of colour blindness, from which Dalton himself suffered.

Apart from meteorology and optics, Dalton's early work focussed on the physical make-up of gases and liquids. In 1801, he published "On the Constitution of Mixed Gases" which extended Boyle's law to mixtures of gases. Another essay, "On the Force of Steam" described the first table of the varying elasticity of temperatures from 32°C to 212°C, while "On the Expansion of Gases by Heat" announced the law arrived at almost simultaneously by Gay-Lussac that all elastic fluids expand the same quantity by heat, which was to be termed "Dalton's law of the equality of gaseous distillation."The fraction of their original volume by which gases expand under constant pressure, between 32° and 212°C was fixed by Dalton at 0.376 (later refined to 0.367).

Dalton then moved on to chemistry, where he determined the comparative weight of atoms, devising a list of 21 atomic weights with hydrogen being taken as unity. Although his calculations were inexact, Dalton had produced a theory of combining such weights which provoked great interest, and his views were published in A New System of Chemical Philosophy (Manchester, 1808, 1810). Here Dalton developed the primary laws of heat and chemical combination that he had been working on since 1801 and laid the foundation for chemical notation by representing graphically the arrangement of atoms in compound bodies. Attributing fixed weights to atoms gave a definiteness to chemical analysis.

Dalton's theories met with only gradual acceptance. He disputed with Humphrey Davy over the elemental nature of chlorine, sodium and potassium, and with Gay-Lussac over the validity of the law of combining volumes. Davy later came to accept Dalton's theories, and Dalton was increasingly sought after by scientific contemporaries, many of whom travelled to Manchester to meet him. In later years Dalton's powers for original reasoning faded; his revised New System of Chemical Philosophy , published in 1827 showed little development in his ideas and he continued to use his own system of chemical symbols, when most contemporaries had gone over to the notation of Berzelius.

Dalton continued to earn his living by teaching mathematics, and lived simply as a lodger with the Rev. William Johns and his family in Faulkner Street, Manchester. He was an abstemious individual, dedicated to his work, and enjoyed few distractions. Dalton did however enjoy travelling and walking, and also played bowls at the Dog and Partridge public house, near Manchester.

Honours and recognition did continue to come his way. From 1817 to his death Dalton was President of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. In 1822 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and he was also a foreign associate of the Paris Academy of Sciences. In 1833 his friends were successful in getting him a pension, which rose to £300 per annum by 1836; this, together with land he had inherited, ensured that Dalton was not a poor man. In his last years Dalton was an invalid, after suffering a series of strokes. He died on 27 July 1844 and was buried at Ardwick cemetery, Manchester.


The Dalton Manuscripts are an artificial collection. Arrangement and description follows A L Smyth's John Dalton 1766-1844, which organised all known Dalton-related material (held by the Library and elsewhere) into broad categories, based on subject and format. Smyth used a sequential numbering system running from 1 to 1038 for this material. This system of arrangement and classification has been retained; gaps in the sequence indicating that the material is held elsewhere). This current collection does not include publications by or about Dalton, which are listed in Smyth's bibliography, although in many cases the Library will hold copies of these.

Issues have been noted with Mss 312, 314 and 360. In the case of MSS 312 and 314, there is no clear distinction in content between these documents of the Dalton Testimonial Committee; it is unclear whether this was due to the arrangement of the documents when Smyth first surveyed them or if they became disordered at the time of conservation work in the early 1990s. MS 360, which according to Smyth, included only printed syllabi of lectures does contain more miscellaneous material. It is unclear if this material was left out by Smyth when he classified the papers, or whether it has been added, intentionally or accidentally, in a subsequent rearrangement of the papers. All these papers have however been left with the classification as found.

UML gratefully acknowledges the permission of the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society to use Smyth's work in compiling this catalogue.

Conditions Governing Access

Open to any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

The collection was purchased from the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society for £35,000 in 1979.

A small number of manuscripts including Mss 87, 116, 26, 149, 171, 176 and 321 are believed to have been acquired from other sources, some unknown.

Other Finding Aids

The papers were described in A.L. Smyth, John Dalton 1766-1844: a bibliography of works by and about him (revised edition Aldershot, 1997); this superseded the first edition of 1966.

Separated Material

Some of Dalton's meteorological notebooks and correspondence are in the Science Museum, London. His herbarium (1791-1793) is kept at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Library and Archives.

Custodial History

Most of the manuscripts were previously in the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society's custody, where they had been deposited by William Charles Henry, Dalton's biographer and literary executor, in 1864. Henry Roscoe and Arthur Harden' A new view of the origin of the atomic theory, described this original collection and included transcripts of some of this material. In 1914 a further discovery of 150 manuscripts relating to Dalton's lectures was made at the Lit and Phil's offices. This collection was much reduced on 24 December 1940 in a fire at the Lit and Phil following enemy bombing of Manchester. Many important manuscripts of Dalton were lost as a result.

Related Material

Correspondence from Dalton to various individuals can be found at the Wellcome Historical Medical Library, London; the Royal Institution, London; Manchester Central Library and the Society of Friends Library, London.

The Library has custody of a letter book in the Woolley family archive (WFA), which comprises 17 letters from Dalton to the Johns family with whom he lodged in Manchester for many years. It also includes a rare daguerreotype of Dalton. This item is not included in Smyth's bibliography.


A L Smyth John Dalton 1766-1844: a bibliography revised edition (Aldershot 1997), is the standard bibliography for Dalton, and includes information on publications by and about him, manuscripts, objects and other Daltoniana. It was first issued in 1966, when the papers in this collection were still held by the Literary and Philosophical Society. H. E. Roscoe and A. Harden, A new view of the origin of Dalton's atomic theory, facs. edn (1970), was an important early study, which has continuing value, not least because it includes transcripts of some of the items destroyed in 1940. W. W. Haldane Gee, 'John Dalton's lectures and lecture illustrations', Memoirs of the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society, 1914-5, vol. 59, discusses several manuscripts in the present collection, and this work is referenced at several points in this catalogue. Edward Brockbank, John Dalton (Manchester 1944), includes transcripts of several letters present in this collection.

E. Patterson, John Dalton and the atomic theory(1970); D. S. L. Cardwell, ed., John Dalton and the progress of science (1968); Arnold Thackray, John Dalton: critical assessments of his life and science (1972) are more recent assessments of Dalton.

Geographical Names