Dalton's Atomic Theory

The English scientist John Dalton was by no means the first person to propose the existence of atoms. Such ideas date back to classical times. Dalton’s major contribution was to arrange those ideas in proper order and give evidence for the existence of atoms.

He showed that the mass relationship expressed by Lavoisier and Proust (in the form of law of conservation of mass and law of constant proportions) could be interpreted most suitably by postulating the existence of atoms of the various elements.

In 1803, Dalton published a new system of chemical philosophy in which the following statements comprise the atomic theory of matter:

  1. Matter consists of indivisible atoms.

  2. All the atoms of a given chemical element are identical in mass and in all other properties.

  3. Different chemical elements have different kinds of atoms and in particular such atoms have different masses.

  4. Atoms are indestructible and retain their identity in chemical reactions.

  5. The formation of a compound from its elements occurs through the combination of atoms of unlike elements in small whole number ratio.

Dalton’s fourth postulate is clearly related to the law of conservation of mass. Every atom of an element has a definite mass. Also in a chemical reaction there is rearrangement of atoms. Therefore after the reaction, mass of the product should remain the same.

The fifth postulate is an attempt to explain the law of definite proportions. A compound is a type of matter containing the atoms of two or more elements in small whole number ratio. Because the atoms have definite mass, the compound must have the elements in definite proportions by mass.

Law of Multiple Proportions

The Dalton’s atomic theory not only explained the laws of conservation of mass and law of constant proportions but also predicted the new ones. He deduced the law of multiple proportions on the basis of his theory. The law states that when two elements form more than one compound, the masses of one element in these compound for a fixed mass of the other element are in the ratio of small whole numbers.

For example, carbon and oxygen form two compounds: Carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Carbon monoxide contains 1.3321 g of oxygen for each 1.000 g of carbon, whereas carbon dioxide contains 2.6642 g of oxygen for 1.0000 g of carbon. In other words, carbon dioxide contains twice the mass of oxygen as is contained in carbon monoxide (2.6642 g = 2 × 1.3321 g) for a given mass of carbon.

Atomic theory explains this by saying that carbon dioxide contains twice as many oxygen atoms for a given number of carbon atoms as does carbon monoxide. The deduction of law of multiple proportions from atomic theory was important in convincing chemists of the validity of the theory.