John Dalton at The John Rylands Library

Well, Look200 is well and truly underway with lots of meetings happening and some exciting developments afoot regarding the exhibition phase (more about that in due course!). So far I’ve been getting some nuts and bolts in place and working on developing the ideas behind the paintings. One important element to this stage is delving into John Dalton’s research into optics.

The John Rylands Library
The John Rylands Library

I have spent today at The John Rylands Library, one of Manchester’s architectural and cultural treasures, where I was fortunate enough to be able to look at some of their collection of Dalton’s original manuscripts. My first stop however had to be the first floor exhibition space where, on loan from the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, are John Dalton’s eyes!

John Dalton's Eyes, left to science.
John Dalton’s Eyes, left to science.

Left to science so that subsequent generations might explore his colour-blindness, Dalton could have never foreseen that it would be in 1995 that, using DNA testing of the eye tissue, he would eventually be definitively diagnosed as suffering from deuteranopia, the form of colour-blindness that manifests as an insensitivity to green.

The rest of the morning was spent with A. L. Smyth’s incredible book, John Dalton 1766-1844 : A Bibliography of Works By Him. If at first it appeared to be a little dry, it turned out to be a revelation. It must have taken Smyth so long to research! It is a not only a bibliography of all Dalton’s writings, it is also a list of all the original manuscripts that exist and their locations, the lectures he delivered, his correspondence, together with publications and scientific papers about John Dalton, paintings and sculptures that were made of him, even TV programmes that featured him (no idea how I will get to see a 1975 edition of Tomorrow’s World though!).

The tragedy that became more and tangible as I went through Smyth’s book was the disastrous bombing, during the 1940 blitz, of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society building at 36 George Street. The Lit and Phil as it is known, has been a part of Manchester’s academic life since it’s opening in 1781. Dalton was a dedicated member of the society and it was in the building that had been the society’s home for 141 years, that, during ww2, a huge amount of his papers and effects were destroyed by the bombing and subsequent fire.               (I’ll be posting more about the Lit and Phil soon.)

Some manuscripts did survive to find a new home at The John Rylands and it was these, and particularly the lecture notes on optics, that I was most interested in seeing. They were brought out in a huge black port-folio and on opening it up I found some of the papers were slightly charred which was really quite poignant. Imagine how the Lit and Phil members, and indeed the whole of Manchester felt the day after the calamitous fire, and whoever spent time going through the debris picking out these few remaining treasures- the heartbreak! However, once I started reading  it was easy  to drift back in time past the adversities of the twentieth century and on to the thrill of scientific discovery that characterises Dalton’s Manchester at the turn of the 19th century.

An image taken from AL Smythe's book. One of the manuscripts I viewed, 'Structure of the Human Eye'
An image taken from AL Smythe’s book. One of the manuscripts I viewed,
‘Structure of the Human Eye’

His drawings were beautifully rendered and the passages that appeared in a copperplate style were so precise it was difficult to believe that they were hand written. The first text I read was thrilling:

“Amidst the multiplicity of objects which engage the attention of modern philosophers there is none more curious, more sublime and more interesting than that of optics, or the science relating to visions, light and colours”. 

My thoughts exactly!

It was great to turn the page and find that John Dalton, like most us, could only keep up the show of neat writing for so long and, as his thoughts obviously ran away with him, the text quickly descended into a virtually indecipherable scrawl. I returned the papers and booked another day with them. I’m really looking forward to discovering the hidden treasures that no doubt lay within the scribbles!

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