John Dalton

6 September 1766 – 27 July 1844

John Dalton

Charles Turner /

John Dalton is best known for establishing atomic theory, with many of his basic principles taught in secondary schools across the world today. It’s a remarkable feat for a Cumbrian man who was the son of a weaver and who was forced to seek a wage from the age of ten.

It's even more remarkable when you consider that he also developed our understanding of colour blindness, meteorology, and in his spare time, helped to develop the measurements of Lake District fells that would later inform Ordnance Survey maps that so many walkers now rely on.


John Dalton was born in the village of Eaglesfield, close to Cockermouth and the picturesque Lorton Valley, in September 1766. His father was a weaver, and a Quaker. He attended a local Quaker school, but due to his family’s poor finances he was required to work as an assistant to a local wealthy Quaker from the age of 10. Fortunately, he was able to continue his education, albeit informally, and at just aged 12 he was given a teaching role in his school. He later moved to Kendal to teach in a Quaker school there, and before the age of 20 he had become the school’s headmaster. During his time in Kendal, he was heavily influenced by Elihu Robinson and John Gough – two educated gentlemen with a keen interest in meteorology. They tutored Dalton on a range of topics, and in 1787, he began to keep daily records of the weather.

In 1793, he moved to Manchester to become a lecturer in maths and philosophy. Here Dalton had access to laboratories and a plethora of scientific minds, and he began to develop theories of his own. Dalton was born colour-blind, as was his brother, and his first published paper concerned theories regarding the condition, including the now proven theory that it was hereditary. In addition, Dalton’s interest in meteorology continued, and led to the development of ideas about how pressures affected liquids and gasses. This, in turn, would eventually lead to the development of his atomic theory that now forms the basis of modern particle physics.

As a Quaker, Dalton lived modestly, and spent much of his spare time in the Lake District walking the fells. He never married, and in later years suffered from a series of strokes before passing away in July 1844. By then, he had become widely respected and his funeral procession was attended by around 40,000 people.


Dalton published a number of papers whilst at Manchester, but his work on atoms has proven to be the most important. Whilst the ancient Greeks had originally proposed the idea that everything was made up of tiny particles, the theory had not been given much attention until Dalton started researching it. He concluded that every element was made of atoms, with each element having its own unique atomic structure, and that atoms could not be destroyed.

Whilst some of his research, particularly concerning the behaviour of gases, would later be proven to be incorrect, his atomic theory has formed the basis of both particle physics and chemistry, and without it many important discoveries would not have been made.

Links to the Lake District

Although Dalton left the Lake District to pursue a scientific career in Manchester, he regularly returned to help inform his ideas on meteorology. At the time, the only way of taking measurements at a high altitude was to climb high mountains, so he made regular trips to the summits of the Lake District fells, and kept accurate records of the summit heights. Dalton was friends with Johnathan Otley, a local geologist who drew the first accurate map of the Lake District, and helped Otley with his measurements, climbing both Helvellyn and Blencathra with him in order to test a Barometer of Otley’s design. These measurements would later help to inform the development of Ordnance Survey maps of the area.

Sites of Interest

Cockermouth has a large history wall on Old Kings Arms Lane, just off Main Street, that details the achievements of John Dalton. In addition, a walk has been created that commemorates the life and works of the scientist. The John Dalton Way starts at Cockermouth and ends at Seascale, taking in various points of interest concerning both Dalton and the development of nuclear power. The walk is 45 km long and a guide is available to buy from the Cockermouth Tourist Information Centre and the New Bookshop on Cockermouth Main Street.