Modern atomic theory of matter is often attributed to Dalton in 1803, with roots going all the way back to Democritus, but I was wondering about early modern antecedents of Dalton's theory, perhaps in the 18th or even early 19th century. Were the general outlines of the atomic theory of matter accepted already at the dawn of the scientific revolution, who were the physicists involved, what were the elements of Dalton's theory that were already generally accepted before he came on the scene, and what were the genuinely new aspects in Dalton's formulation?

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    $\begingroup$ I strongly recommend you to watch 3 episode BBC documentary named "Chemistry: A Volatile History", hosted by Jim Al-Khalili (who is, BTW, a nuclear physicist). You will find answers to all of your questions here. $\endgroup$
    – linuxick
    Dec 14, 2015 at 10:57
  • $\begingroup$ Atomic theory gained popularity in chemistry before it was accepted by physicists. Many physicists were reluctant until the beginning of 20 century. $\endgroup$ Dec 14, 2015 at 19:22

2 Answers 2


Regarding Early Modern Atomism and chemistry, some possible sources of information are :

and, of course,

Also very useful :


Rudjer J. Bošković (1711-1787), who predates Dalton, could be considered the father of modern atomic physics. See his works here, especially his A Theory of Natural Philosophy.

I mention Bošković (also spelled Boscovich) because he was after Newton (and his corpuscles) and before Faraday, who introduced the field concept and said in 1844 that

the safest course appears to be to assume as little as possible, and that is why the atoms of Boscovich appear to me to have a great advantage over the more usual notion,
and Maxwell, who said in 1877 that
the best thing we can do is to get rid of the rigid nucleus and substitute an atom of Boscovich.
Kelvin wrote in 1899:
Hooke’s exhibition of the forms of crystals by piles of globes, Navier’s and Poisson’s theory of the elasticity of solids, Maxwell’s and Clausius’ work in the kinetic theory of gases…all developments of Boscovich’s theory pure and simple.
Kelvin wrote in 1905:
My present assumption is Boscovichianism pure and simple.

(See: Roger Joseph Boscovich by Whyte.)

  • $\begingroup$ Gassendi (1592-1655) - who is mentioned in Mauro's answer - was a lot earlier. $\endgroup$
    – fdb
    Dec 15, 2015 at 9:16
  • $\begingroup$ @fdb Depends what is meant by "Modern atomic theory". By "modern" do we mean 16th century? 19th-20th centuries? $\endgroup$
    – Geremia
    Dec 15, 2015 at 17:40

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