John Dalton’s Early Years

John Dalton’s Early Years

The Daltons may be traced back in west Cumberland at least to the late sixteenth century. From that time the family seems to have owned and farmed a small amount of land. However, John Dalton’s father Joseph himself a younger son had no holding until his elder brother died without issue in 1786.

The property then inherited went at Joseph’s death the following year to Jonathan, his own elder son. Only when Jonathan died a bachelor in 1834 did the now considerably augmented acreage finally come to John Dalton, who by this time had independently accumulated wealth more than sufficient to his own frugal bachelor ways.

In the eighteenth century, west Cumberland enjoyed considerable prosperity as a mining and trading area, with an important series of coastal ports engaged in local and overseas commerce. George Fox had earlier seen his first major evangelistic successes in this region, whole villages and families (including the Daltons) undergoing conversion to his doctrines. The area was thus peculiarly important within the developing international life of the Society of Friends. Trading and commercial interests blended well with the social organization and ethical concerns of Fox’s followers. In time strong links were formed between these northern Friends, Quaker manufacturers in the Midlands, London merchants, and Philadelphia residents. This network of connections, coupled with the sect’s strong emphasis on education and the interest in natural philosophy displayed by so many of its members, is the key to understanding the peculiarly favourable context in which Dalton grew and matured as a scientific thinker.

Though his father was somewhat feckless, his mother came from a more prosperous local family. John was strongly influenced by her determination and tenacity. He made rapid progress in the village school, one of the many in the area maintained and subsidized (often precariously) by the Quakers, through the agency of their regional Quarterly and annual National Meetings. Indeed, when the master withdrew and the school was about to collapse, Dalton himself took over as teacher, though barely twelve. John Dalton also quickly attracted the attention of Elihu Robinson, the most prominent among the local Friends and a naturalist of significant stature. Robinson’s encouragement is reflected in the story of how John at the age of thirteen copied out verbatim an issue of the Ladies’ Diary, a popular but by no means trivial annual devoted to mathematics and philosophy.

At this time Dalton’s future seemed uncertain, and he was of necessity put to work as a labourer on the local small-holdings. In 1781 John Dalton was rescued by an invitation to succeed his elder brother as assistant in a Kendal boarding school, forty miles away. Kendal was an old established and thriving centre for the region’s commerce and culture. In recognition of its centrality and importance, the school to which Dalton moved had recently been rebuilt and re-equipped by the Quakers.

Under Gough’s tuition, John Dalton made rapid progress in mathematics, meteorology, and botany. He began to keep daily meteorological records, in emulation of his master. These were steadfastly continued from 1787 till the day he died. He started to compile a Hortus Siccus. It filled eleven volumes by the time of his final entries, in 1829. As a “teacher of the mathematics in Kendal” he also enjoyed an increasing reputation for his successes in the yearly puzzles and prize competitions of the Ladies’ and Gentleman’s Diaries. Rooted in such a national complex of educational institutions and social contacts favourably disposed to his taste for natural philosophy, a man of lesser ambition and ability might have known contentment. Not John Dalton.

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