Dalton's atomic theory
We might as well attempt to introduce a new planet into the solar system, or to annihilate one already in existence, as to create or destroy a particle of hydrogen.
John Dalton, A New System of
Chemical Philosophy, 1808)
John Dalton (1766-1844) developed the first
useful atomic theory of matter around 1803. In the course of his studies on meteorology, Dalton concluded that evaporated water exists in air as an independent gas. He wondered how water and air could occupy the same space at the same time, when obviously solid bodies can't. If the water and air were composed of discrete particles, Dalton reasoned, evaporation might be viewed as a mixing of water particles with air particles. He performed a series of experiments on mixtures of gases to determine what effect properties of the individual gases had on the properties of the mixture as a whole. While trying to explain the results of those experiments, Dalton developed the hypothesis that the sizes of the particles making up different gases must be different. He later wrote 
"...it became an object to determine the relative sizes and weights, together with the relative numbers of atoms entering into such combinations... Thus a train of investigation was laid for determining the number and weight of all chemical elementary particles which enter into any sort of combination one with another."
Dalton's exceptional gift for recognizing and interpreting patterns in experimental data lead him from a problem in meteorology to the idea of atoms as fundamental constituents of matter. He realized the vital theoretical connection between atomic weights and weight relations in chemical reactions. He was the first to associate the ancient idea of atoms with stoichiometry.
Some of the details of Dalton's original atomic theory are now known to be incorrect. But the core concepts of the theory (that chemical reactions can be explained by the union and separation of atoms, and that these atoms have characteristic properties) are foundations of modern physical science.
General Chemistry Online! Dalton's atomic theory
Copyright © 1997-2005 by Fred Senese
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