John Dalton (6 September 1766 – 27 July 1844) was one of the founding fathers of the Manchester Mechanics Institute, a chemist, meteorologist and physicist. Hailing from Cumberland in the Lakes, Dalton presented his famous atomic theory to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society just over 200 years ago, and later became its president, presenting over 100 papers to its esteemed members.
His humble beginnings as son of a weaver and his informal education, plus his outsider status as a Quaker, was pivotal to both his own future prospects and that of the institute. Religious non-conformists or ‘dissenters’ as they were known at the time were barred from attending or teaching at English universities. The formation of a non sectarian college, open to all, was to prove critical in the city – both UMIST and the Owens College were founded in the face of such restrictions.
A polymath – or perhaps just a by-product of the region’s famously gloomy weather – Dalton kept a meteorological diary for 57 years, from childhood to his death, during which time he entered more than 200,000 observations!
A naturally quiet character, he preferred a simple lifestyle and routine with only a few close friends, never even maintaining his own household, lodging instead with the Rev. W. Johns and his family in George Street where his daily round of laboratory work and tuition was broken only by annual excursions to the Lake District and occasional visits to London. Yet at his death approximately 40,000 people filed by his coffin as it was laid in state in the Manchester Town Hall. He was buried in Ardwick cemetery which is now a playing field – perhaps appropriately for a man embarrassed by attention.
And what he would think of the proliferation of buildings, statutes and streets named in his honour today is anyone’s guess…..
James Prescott Joule (24 December 1818 – 11 October 1889) was the son of a leading Salford brewer.
At 16 he began studying under John Dalton at the Lit & Phil Society. Fascinated by electricity, it wasn’t long before he began to conduct electrical and magnetic experiments at a laboratory built in the cellar of his father’s home. He and his brother apparently constantly gave electric shocks to each other and to the family’s servants in their home adjoining the Joule Brewery in New Bailey Street.
He is perhaps most well known as the first person to prove that heat is a form of energy – that’s why the international unit of energy, the joule, is named after him – which led to the theory of conservation of energy which led to the development of the first law of thermodynamics. But as a pupil of Dalton it’s also no surprise that he held a firm belief in the atomic theory, despite many scientists of his time remaining sceptical.
He became President of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in 1860, and received a civil list pension of 200 pounds per annum in 1878 for services to science.
Joule died at home in Sale and is buried in Brooklands cemetery. The gravestone is inscribed with the number “772.55”, his climacteric 1878 measurement of the mechanical equivalent of heat and a quotation from the Gospel of John “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” (9:4)
His statue now stands in Manchester Town Hall opposite that of Dalton, his mentor and inspiration.
George E. Davis (July 1850-1906)- As befits its roots in the early chemical industry of the region, ‘the Tech’ pioneered Chemical Engineering as an academic subject in Britain with Davies’ key lecture series in1888. Here’s the story….
Davis was the eldest son of George Davis, a bookseller, and though apprenticed at 14 to a local bookbinder, he swiftly abandoned his trade to pursue his burgeoning interest in chemistry. Davis studied at the Slough Mechanics Institute while working at the local gas works, then spent a year studying at the Royal School of Mines in London (now part of Imperial College, London) before leaving to work in Manchester, the absolute epicentre of the chemical industry in the UK.
Once in Manchester he held a variety of chemist jobs and became an inspector for the Alkali Act of 1863, a very early piece of environmental legislation requiring soda manufacturers to reduce the amount of gaseous hydrochloric acid released to the atmosphere from their factories. Then in 1872 he became manager at the Lichfield Chemical Company in Staffordshire and it was here that his capacity for innovation flourished.
Davis identified broad features in common to all chemical factories, wrote the influential A Handbook of Chemical Engineering and published that pivotal lecture series at Manchester Technical School – a dozen lectures that defined and positioned Chemical Engineering as an academic as well as an industrial discipline.
Initially criticized for being common place know-how since it was designed around operating practices used by British chemical industries, his ideas helped initiate new thinking in the Chemical Industry, as well as spark Chemical Engineering degree programmes, at several universities in the USA. The world followed suit and the rest is history….
Today in the entrance to Jackson’s Mill, the building that houses the School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Sciences, there is a display and memorial to Davis. The George E. Davis Medal of the Institution of Chemical Engineers is named in his honour.
Sir John Douglas Cockcroft (May 27th, 1897 – September 18, 1967) is a name and portrait that crops up all over the place on campus – mainly it seems as an illustrious alumnus ‘done good’ and a famous physicist on the international stage, awarded the Nobel prize in 1951for his pioneering work with Rutherford and Walton on the transmutation of atomic nuclei by artificially accelerated atomic particles.
Basically, Cockcroft spilt the atom…!
A Todmorden boy, Cockcroft came from a family of cotton manufacturers and studied mathematics at Manchester University under Horace Lamb from 1914–1915. After serving in the First World War in the Royal Field Artillery he returned to Manchester to study electrical engineering at the College of Technology, followed by an apprenticeship with Metropolitan Vickers Electrical Company. He went on to study mathematics at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and began research there under Ernest Rutherford. In 1929 he was elected a Fellow of St. John’s College.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, he took up the post of Assistant Director of Scientific Research in the Ministry of Supply, working on radar. In 1944, he took charge of the Canadian Atomic Energy project and became Director of the Montreal Laboratory and Chalk River Laboratories. In 1946, he returned to Britain to set up the Atomic Energy Research Establishment AERE) at Harwell, charged with developing Britain’s atomic power programme.
Famously, his insistence that the Windscale nuclear reactor coolers be reinforced with high performance filters, at huge expense, became known as Cockcroft’s Follies – but in 1957 when the core of one of the two reactors caught fire, his filters prevented the disaster from becoming a catastrophe…