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The tour of the scientific history of Manchester starts here, at the Central Library. It is narrated from the viewpoint of John Dalton, the man credited with the discovery atomic theory in chemistry. Dalton lived in Manchester from 1793 until his death in 1844.
March 2015 - St Peter's Square is currently undergoing major works. The former peace garden, which was the original stop on this walk, has been removed, and the cenotaph relocated in its place.
Close to where the cenotaph now stands was once home to the Manchester Academy, set up to train Nonconformist ministers at a time when the traditional universities were only open to members of the Church of England. Dalton, a Quaker, came here in 1793 to teach chemistry, natural philosophy and mathematics.
Behind the Academy was the Mechanics' Institution, created in 1824. The Institution was set up for workers from local industry, to give them a basic education in sciences. The Mechanics' Institution was later reorganised into what became UMIST, now part of the University of Manchester.
What’s now Manchester Art Gallery was built in the 1820s as the Royal Manchester Institution. Before that, John Dalton's friend William Henry, a successful chemist, had his house here. Henry’s family business produced magnesia and soda-water, and it was while researching soda-water that he discovered that the amount of a gas which you can dissolve in a liquid varies in proportion to the pressure of the gas, a principle now known as Henry’s Law.
On the opposite side of Princess Street there is a plaque to Frederick Crace-Calvert, who arrived in Manchester in 1846, a manufacturing chemist who taught at the Manchester Royal Institution. One of his chemical interests was carbolic acid, now known as phenol, which became famous for its use in antiseptic surgery, pioneered by Joseph Lister in the 1860s.
This building is the main surface access point for a Cold War bunker located 34 metres below the ground. The tower provided ventilation. Installed in 1954, it housed the ‘Guardian’ telephone exchange, intended to maintain communications in the event of an atomic bomb strike. Because maintenance staff might have had to remain underground for several weeks, the bunker was equipped with food stocks, electric generators and a well to supply water.
Deep bunkers such as Guardian became obsolete almost immediately with the development of the hydrogen bomb, but the main tunnel is still used for secure cabling.
This small black and white plaque commemorates the bicentenary of Dalton’s atomic theory. John Dalton was living in Faulkner street in 1803 when he first announced the theory. Dalton proposed that atmospheric gases and other elements were made up of tiny particles which couldn’t be divided or broken up any further, and that they combined with other elements in simple fixed proportions to make larger molecules. Dalton found that he could explain the results of a lot of chemical combinations if all the particles of each element weighed the same, but each element had its own particular weight. These particles were called “atoms” after the Greek atomos, meaning ‘indivisible’.
A plaque here commemorates the first permanent home of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester. The ‘Lit and Phil’, as it was known, was one of the first such societies in England. It began as a dining club in about 1781, at the home of a physician named Thomas Percival. Within a few years the club was an established Society and rich enough to build its own premises on George Street, which opened in 1799.
Dalton joined the Lit and Phil not long after he arrived in Manchester, and in 1800 became Secretary. It was here that Dalton first announced the atomic theory in 1803. Dalton became President of the Lit and Phil in 1816, and remained so for the rest of his life. The building was still home to the Lit and Phil when it was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, with the loss of most of Dalton’s personal papers.
The Portico Library was opened in 1806 as a private subscription library. John Dalton, whose name appears on the list of readers on the blue plaque, was its first honorary member and had the official duty of ‘Clockman’, making sure the Library clock kept time. The Portico still operates as a library on this site, although most of the building has now become a pub.
At the corner of King Street and Cheapside, a plaque marks the site of Charles White’s house. Dr White, a surgeon and man-midwife, was one of the founders of the Lit and Phil, and involved in setting up the Infirmary in the 1750s. In the 1820s, this became the site of Manchester’s original Town Hall. Here, in 1844, John Dalton was laid out after he died; 40 000 people filed past his body.
The original Chapel on this site was the centre for Manchester’s Unitarian community: several of those who worshipped here were active in developing the Lit and Phil and Dissenting institutions such as the Manchester Academy. Just over the road, in the reading room of St Ann’s Church, James Prescott Joule first announced his principle of the mechanical equivalent of heat in 1847. Joule was the son of a successful brewer on New Bailey Street in Salford, and spent some time as a boy as one of John Dalton’s private pupils. As a young man, he would put in a full day’s work at the brewhouse before devoting the evening to his investigations.
Just past the front porch, prominent statues of John Dalton and his pupil, James Prescott Joule, face each other across the main entranceway. Around the corner on the right is a hall of statues, including one of William Fairbairn, the engineer. Many local fortunes were made from the engineering industry which grew up to supply the textile trade, supplying machinery or the materials for mill buildings.
The Great Hall on the first floor is dominated by twelve frescoes, painted by Ford Madox Brown to show the history of Manchester. On the near right, Dalton is depicted collecting fire-gas from a marsh, while at the far end is William Crabtree, a local astronomer, one of a group who measured the transit of Venus in 1639.
Quakers, or members of the Religious Society of Friends, have worshipped at a Meeting House on this site since the 1790s. John Dalton, as a lifelong Quaker, worshipped here, and in the 1820s contributed to the fund to build the enlarged Meeting House we see today.