III. CHEMISTRY SINCE THE TIME OF DALTON

JOHN DALTON AND THE ATOMIC THEORY

Small beginnings as have great endings—sometimes. As a case in point, note what came of the small, original effort of a self-trained back-country Quaker youth named John Dalton, who along towards the close of the eighteenth century became interested in the weather, and was led to construct and use a crude water-gauge to test the amount of the rainfall. The simple experiments thus inaugurated led to no fewer than two hundred thousand recorded observations regarding the weather, which formed the basis for some of the most epochal discoveries in meteorology, as we have seen. But this was only a beginning. The simple rain-gauge pointed the way to the most important generalization of the nineteenth century in a field of science with which, to the casual observer, it might seem to have no alliance whatever. The wonderful theory of atoms, on which the whole gigantic structure of modern chemistry is founded, was the logical outgrowth, in the mind of John Dalton, of those early studies in meteorology.

The way it happened was this: From studying the rainfall, Dalton turned naturally to the complementary process of evaporation. He was soon led to believe that vapor exists, in the atmosphere as an independent gas. But since two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time, this implies that the various atmospheric gases are really composed of discrete particles. These ultimate particles are so small that we cannot see them—cannot, indeed, more than vaguely imagine them—yet each particle of vapor, for example, is just as much a portion of water as if it were a drop out of the ocean, or, for that matter, the ocean itself. But, again, water is a compound substance, for it may be separated, as Cavendish has shown, into the two elementary substances hydrogen and oxygen. Hence the atom of water must be composed of two lesser atoms joined together. Imagine an atom of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Unite them, and we have an atom of water; sever them, and the water no longer exists; but whether united or separate the atoms of hydrogen and of oxygen remain hydrogen and oxygen and nothing else. Differently mixed together or united, atoms produce different gross substances; but the elementary atoms never change their chemical nature—their distinct personality.

It was about the year 1803 that Dalton first gained a full grasp of the conception of the chemical atom. At once he saw that the hypothesis, if true, furnished a marvellous key to secrets of matter hitherto insoluble—questions relating to the relative proportions of the atoms themselves. It is known, for example, that a certain bulk of hydrogen gas unites with a certain bulk of oxygen gas to form water. If it be true that this combination consists essentially of the union of atoms one with another (each single atom of hydrogen united to a single atom of oxygen), then the relative weights of the original masses of hydrogen and of oxygen must be also the relative weights of each of their respective atoms. If one pound of hydrogen unites with five and one-half pounds of oxygen (as, according to Dalton's experiments, it did), then the weight of the oxygen atom must be five and one-half times that of the hydrogen atom. Other compounds may plainly be tested in the same way. Dalton made numerous tests before he published his theory. He found that hydrogen enters into compounds in smaller proportions than any other element known to him, and so, for convenience, determined to take the weight of the hydrogen atom as unity. The atomic weight of oxygen then becomes (as given in Dalton's first table of 1803) 5.5; that of water (hydrogen plus oxygen) being of course 6.5. The atomic weights of about a score of substances are given in Dalton's first paper, which was read before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, October 21, 1803. I wonder if Dalton himself, great and acute intellect though he had, suspected, when he read that paper, that he was inaugurating one of the most fertile movements ever entered on in the whole history of science?

Be that as it may, it is certain enough that Dalton's contemporaries were at first little impressed with the novel atomic theory. Just at this time, as it chanced, a dispute was waging in the field of chemistry regarding a matter of empirical fact which must necessarily be settled before such a theory as that of Dalton could even hope for a bearing. This was the question whether or not chemical elements unite with one another always in definite proportions. Berthollet, the great co-worker with Lavoisier, and now the most authoritative of living chemists, contended that substances combine in almost indefinitely graded proportions between fixed extremes. He held that solution is really a form of chemical combination—a position which, if accepted, left no room for argument.

But this contention of the master was most actively disputed, in particular by Louis Joseph Proust, and all chemists of repute were obliged to take sides with one or the other. For a time the authority of Berthollet held out against the facts, but at last accumulated evidence told for Proust and his followers, and towards the close of the first decade of our century it came to be generally conceded that chemical elements combine with one another in fixed and definite proportions.