Fonds ASTN - Papers of Francis Aston

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Reference code



Papers of Francis Aston


  • 1920-42 (Creation)

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Extent and medium

4 boxes

Context area

Name of creator


Biographical history

Francis William Aston was born at Harborne, near Birmingham on 1 September 1877. He attended Mason College (later the University of Birmingham) where he studied chemistry under P. F. Frankland. He left school and worked as a chemist at a brewery for three years, while pursuing an interest in physics, which attracted the attention of J. H. Poynting, professor of physics at the University of Birmingham, and became his research student. In 1908 he detected the phenomenon of a new 'primary cathode dark space'.

In 1909 he became a lecturer in physics at Birmingham, but moved on quickly, accepting an invitation from Sir J. J. Thomson to work, as his assistant, on positive rays at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. He became a member of Trinity College, Cambridge, took a B.A. degree by research in 1912 and was elected Clerk Maxwell scholar in 1913. It was during this period that he obtained definite evidence for the existence of two isotopes of the inert gas neon. Aston's research was interrupted by the first World War, when he worked at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, and in 1919 he returned to the Cavendish Laboratory to research the separation of the isotopes of neon. This was accomplished using his invention, the mass spectrograph, an apparatus which enabled him to identify isotopes of elements. He extended this technique to other chemical elements, discovering, in a series of measurements, 212 of the naturally occurring isotopes. From this work he formulated the whole number rule. In 1920 Aston was elected to the Fellowship of Trinity College Cambridge, was elected to the Royal Society in 1921 (winning the Hughes Medal in 1922 and giving the Bakerian Lecture in 1927), and in 1922 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry 'for his discovery, by means of his mass spectrograph, of isotopes, in a large number of non-radioactive elements, and for his enunciation of the whole number rule'.

Aston's book 'Isotopes' was published in 1922, with a second edition published in 1924. In 1933, he published a revised version with a narrower focus, 'Mass-spectra and Isotopes', with a second edition in 1942.

Aston's interests in astronomy and photography led to his membership of expeditions that studied eclipses in Sumatra (1925), Canada (1932) and Japan (1936). He served as President of the International Union of Chemistry's Commission on Atoms, 1935-1945. He continued to live and work in Cambridge, where he died on 20 November 1945.

Archival history

Previously housed as O.6.4. Given the name Papers of Francis William Aston (ASTN) in July 2019.

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

The "Manuscript of F.W. Aston's book on isotopes" [presumably the whole collection] was the gift of the Executors of Dr. F. W. Aston, October, 1946.

Content and structure area

Scope and content

Writings, printed material, and miscellaneous material relating to both editions of F. W. Aston's 'Isotopes' and both editions of the later revision, 'Mass-spectra and Isotopes'.

The writings include an incomplete[?] draft of the first edition of 'Isotopes' written in Aston's hand [ASTN 1], some pages written on the verso of minutes of the British Association for the Advancement of Science [ca 1920-1923], with related notes and including a postcard from Hugh Frank Newall dated Dec. 193[?] about a reference found in [Antonius] van den Broek [ASTN 1/104]; other drafts are a combination of typescript and printed material with emendations in Aston's hand and that of a typesetter, some of it written on C. P. Snow's letterhead., with original material for the plates and figures [ASTN 2, 4, 7, 8].

Accompanied by printed copies of 'Isotopes' which contain some edits and have been cut up for use in the revision [ASTN 3, 6], and a typescript letter from F. P. Dunn of Edward Arnold Publishers dated Nov. 1923 sending unbound copies of 'Isotopes' for his use [ASTN 5]. Also accompanied by offprints of other works, also with emendations and cut sections [ASTN 9], and a letter from F. A. Towle of the Royal Society in July 1927 returning figures for his Bakerian Lecture [ASTN 10].

Appraisal, destruction and scheduling


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Conditions of access and use area

Conditions governing access

The collection has not yet been fully catalogued and items may be arranged in a different order in future.

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      Related units of description

      Aston's own copies of his (uncut) offprints are catalogued as T.5.140 and T.5.141.
      Another collection of Aston's correspondence and papers comprising 1 box of materials is at Cambridge University Library, MS Add.8322.

      Related descriptions

      Notes area


      Cite as: Trinity College Library Cambridge, Papers of Francis William Aston, ASTN.

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          Archivist's note

          Collection level description created by Diana Smith in July 2019.

          Accession area