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Dr James Peters writes:

We are pleased to announce that an online catalogue for the John Dalton manuscripts is now available on ELGAR.

The Dalton manuscripts are one of our most important scientific collections, and are a key part of Manchester’s scientific heritage. Until now, however, discovering information about this collection has been difficult, so this new on-line catalogue will make for greater accessibility.

etching of John Dalton

Engraving of John Dalton by J. Stephenson (Dalton Add MS 1).

The Library purchased the collection from the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in 1979, and it is the largest single collection of documents relating to Dalton. In fact, the Lit & Phil’s collection was once much larger, but in December 1940 a significant portion of it was destroyed during the Manchester ‘Blitz’. Much of the surviving material was disorganised and fire damaged. In the early 1990s, the Library completed a major conservation project for the collection, which involved enclosing the manuscripts in polyester wallets.

However, while this work made the manuscripts physically accessible, information about the collection’s contents was much harder to come by. A. L. Smyth’s John Dalton 1766-1844: a bibliography of works by and about him… was the main source of information. First published in 1966, and reissued in 1997, this is an inventory of all known Dalton-related source material. It was reasonably comprehensive, reflecting Smyth’s extensive  knowledge of Dalton, but no on-line version existed and some descriptions were out-of-date or incomplete.

Our catalogue of Dalton manuscripts is based on Smyth’s bibliography, but with amended and expanded descriptions. We have retained Smyth’s original references for documents, as these are now part of established usage.

The collection is relatively compact, comprising over 130 manuscripts, mostly in Dalton’s own hand. The content is diverse, and includes manuscript lectures by Dalton, and research papers and notebooks on meteorology, optics, chemistry, maths, astronomy, and acoustics.   There are also more personal documents, including Dalton’s accounts books, which provide interesting information on the sources of his income and the objects of his expenditure.

jrl16011427

Page from, ‘Sequel to an essay on the constitution of the atmosphere’, fire-damaged notebook of John Dalton. DAL/100.

Correspondence is not a major feature of the collection. Dalton’s own letters tend to be domestic in nature and reveal little of his scientific ideas. However, he received several interesting letters from scientific correspondents.  The letters reveal that Dalton was particularly in demand to explain unusual natural phenomena. One correspondent, Thomas Watson reports a strange lightning storm witnessed at Cambridge (MS 352), while H. H. Watson asks for his opinion of an unexplained “blood red light” in the sky at Bolton (MS 351) and Dalton’s friend Jonathan Otley recounts “an extraordinary exhibition of prismatic colour” on Derwent Water (MS 339). A more earthly phenomenon is reported by Charles Taylor, who describes encountering heat “like a furnace” emanating from a ditch while out walking in Suffolk, and asks for an explanation (MS 350).

The collection includes the papers of the Dalton Testimonial Committee, which raised funds for a monument to Manchester’s leading scientist. The sculptor Francis Chantrey was commissioned to create the statue of Dalton, which now resides in Manchester Town Hall. The collection includes correspondence with Chantrey about this work.

Cataloguing often reveals unexpected items in collections, and in this case, some unknown letters of the scientist Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)  were discovered (Dalton Add MS 1). Their connection to the rest of collection is unclear, as Priestley was not apparently associated with Dalton. The letters were written to Priestley’s sister, firstly, on the eve of his departure to the United States in 1794 to escape political and religious persecution, and secondly, describing his new life in rural Pennsylvania.