3893 Francis Aston and the mass spectrograph Gordon Squires

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J. Chem. Soc., Dalton Trans., 1998, 3893–3899


Francis Aston and the mass spectrograph

Gordon Squires

Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, Madingley Road, Cambridge, UK CB3 0HE

Received 18th June 1998, Accepted 28th July 1998

The chemical determination of atomic weights gives the

average weight for an aggregate of a large number of

atoms. Although this is useful in many applications, the

determination of the masses of individual atoms gives

further important information, in particular the stability

of the atoms or more precisely of their nuclei. The first

accurate determination of the masses of individual atoms

was made by Aston in 1919. His measurements demon-

strated the existence of isotopes in non-radioactive

elements and paved the way for our present picture of the

nuclear atom.

Early life

Francis William Aston was born on 1 September 1877 at

Harborne, Birmingham. He was the third child of a family of

seven. His father and paternal grandfather were metal mer-

chants and farmers, and Francis was brought up on a small

farm. From an early age he showed a keen interest in mechan-

ical toys and scienti

fic apparatus. He had a ‘laboratory’ over a

stable and amused his sisters with home-made 

fireworks and

large tissue-paper hot-air balloons. These were dispatched with

stamped addressed postcards, which were sometimes returned

from great distances.


Aston entered Malvern College in September 1891 and two

years later went to Mason College (which subsequently became

the University of Birmingham), where he studied chemistry

and physics. The professor in physics was John Poynting (of

Poynting’s vector). While at Birmingham Aston acquired skill

with tools and glass-blowing which proved invaluable in his

later work. Faced with the need to earn a living after graduating

he took a course in fermentation chemistry and in 1900 started

work in a brewery in Wolverhampton. In his spare time he

experimented at home, designing and building new forms of

Sprengel and Tœpler vacuum pumps. This experience was again

to stand him in good stead later on.

In 1903 Aston returned to Birmingham University and

physics. He worked on the properties of electrical discharges in

Gordon Squires is a retired

lecturer in the Department of

Physics at the University of

Cambridge, and his current

interest is the history of the

Cavendish Laboratory. His

field of research is the scatter-

ing of thermal neutrons. He is

the author of textbooks on

practical physics, quantum

mechanics, and the theory of

thermal neutron scattering.

Gordon Squires

gases and measured the variation of the length of the Crookes

dark space with current and pressure. In 1908 his father died,

and he used a legacy to travel round the world. On his return he

was appointed a lecturer in Birmingham University, but after

one term he received an invitation from Joseph (J. J.) Thomson

to come to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge as his

assistant. Poynting, a close friend of Thomson, had recognised

Aston’s great gifts as an experimenter and recommended him

for the post. Aston accepted the invitation and thus began a

career that had momentous consequences for chemistry and

nuclear physics.

Historical background to Aston’s work

To appreciate the signi

ficance of the work Thomson was doing

and Aston’s subsequent role we need to go back in the history

of chemistry. In 1803 John Dalton put forward an atomic

theory, which laid the foundations of modern chemistry. One of

the postulates was that atoms of the same element are similar to

one another and equal in weight. About ten years later William

Prout suggested that the atoms of the elements were made up

of aggregates of hydrogen atoms. If this were true the weights

of atoms would be expressed as whole numbers, i.e. integers,

and, on the basis of Dalton’s postulate that all the atoms of an

element had the same weight, atomic weights would also be

whole numbers. However, experiment showed that although the

atomic weights of many of the elements were whole numbers,

far more than could be attributed to chance, there were a few,

for example, magnesium, atomic weight 24.3, and chlorine,

atomic weight 35.5, which were not. Therefore, Dalton and

Prout could not both be correct, and around 1900 it was

Dalton’s rather than Prout’s hypothesis that was accepted.

In 1896 Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity, and from

then until the outbreak of the 

first World War many radioactive

substances were found. An interesting feature was that two and

sometimes three of the substances with quite di

fferent modes of

decay appeared to be chemically similar. For example, in 1906

Bertram Boltwood found that once salts of thorium and

ionium were mixed they could not be separated by any chemical



 Another example was radium B and lead; not only were

their chemical properties the same, but Ernest Rutherford and

Edward Andrade found that they had identical X-ray spectra.


In 1913 Frederick Soddy


 proposed the word isotopes to

describe these chemically similar materials, because they

occupy the same place in the Periodic Table of the elements. He

observed ‘They are chemically identical, and, save only as

regards the relatively few physical properties which depend

upon atomic mass directly, physically identical too’.

Thomson’s work on positive rays

In 1886 Eugen Goldstein was investigating the properties of the

electric discharge obtained when a large voltage is applied

across a pair of electrodes in a vessel containing a gas at low

pressure. He found that if a channel or canal was cut through

the cathode a beam of light appeared on the side remote from

the anode. He called the beam Kanalstrahlen, canal rays.




J. Chem. Soc., Dalton Trans., 1998,  3893–3899

1898 Willy Wien


 managed to de

flect the beam with a strong


field, in a direction which showed it was due to a

stream of positively charged particles. They are in fact the posi-

tive ions resulting from the atoms in the gas that have lost one

or more electrons. In 1907 Thomson


 started to investigate

the positive rays. He measured the mass of the particles by


flecting the rays with electric and magnetic fields. His appar-

atus was the forerunner of Aston’s mass spectrograph and it is

instructive to consider it 


The essentials of the apparatus are shown in Fig. 1. The

discharge occurs in the spherical tube T. The anode A is located

in a side arm, and the positive rays pass through the cathode C,

which is a 

fine tube. The rays then pass between the poles N and

S of an electromagnet, the pole pieces P


, P


 of which are insu-

lated from the magnet by thin sheets of mica. By this means

a potential di

fference may be applied across the pole pieces,

giving an electric 

field E in the same direction as the magnetic

field B, this direction being at right angles to the path of the

particles. The particles 

finally strike the screen H, where they

produce a 

fluorescent spot. In the absence of the two fields the

particles travel in a straight line, and the spot is in the centre of

the screen in line with the 

fine tube in the cathode.

Take a set of right-handed axes xyz, with the initial direc-

tion of the particles as the z axis, and the common direction of

E and B as the x axis. We consider the electric and magnetic


flections separately. The deflection produced by the electric

field is shown by the diagram in Fig. 2. The particles coming

from the left with velocity v enter the region between the pole

pieces P


 and P


, across which a potential di

fference V is

applied. If the pole pieces are a distance d apart this gives an


field V/d, which causes an acceleration eE/m, where

e is the charge and m the mass of the particles. If l


 is the length

of the plates, the particles spend an approximate time l




between the plates, and when they emerge from the plates they

have acquired a component of velocity in the x direction given by











Ӷ υ, the angle through which the particles are deflected

by the 

field is approximately

θ =












A magnetic 

field B whose direction is at right angles to

the path of the particles de

flects them into a circular path of

radius R as shown in Fig. 3. The force due to B is Be

υ, and its

direction is at right angles to the directions of both B and v. The

acceleration in the circular path is 



/R. Thus





Beυ, i.e. mυ = BeR.


Fig. 1

Diagram of Thomson’s positive ray apparatus.

Fig. 2

The de

flection of positively charged particles by an electric


The particles are de

flected in the y direction through an angle

φ =











where l


 is the length of the path in the magnetic 


Now let E and B act together. The screen H, which contains

the x and y axes, is shown in Fig. 4, with the position O of the

spot for the unde

flected beam as the origin. The field E deflects

the particles in the x direction by an amount proportional to

the angle 

θ, while B deflects them in the y direction by an

amount proportional to the angle 

φ, both the angles being

small. The coordinates of the spot are therefore

















where c


 and c


 are constants depending on the geometry of the

apparatus. Eliminating the velocity 

υ between these two expres-

sions gives













where the constant c


 depends on the geometry of the appar-

atus. Thus, for a beam of ions with the same value of e/m and

varying velocities, the pattern on the screen is a parabola, Fig.

4. Particles with di

fferent velocities arrive at different points on

the parabola.

If ions with di

fferent masses are present there will be several

parabolas corresponding to the di

fferent e/m values. The value

of e is the electronic charge, 1.60 × 10


 C, or a simple multiple

of it. For singly charged ions the y value of the parabola at a

constant value of x is proportional to 1/

m. So the ratio of two

masses is given by the square of the inverse ratio of the two y

values at the same value of x. This is independent of the form

of the apparatus and of the values of E and B. If an atom of

mass m loses two electrons in the discharge tube, the doubly

charged ion appears on a parabola corresponding to a singly

charged ion of mass m/2. A photographic record is made of the

Fig. 3

The de

flection of positively charged particles by a magnetic

field. The direction of the field is down, perpendicular to the plane of

the diagram.

Fig. 4

Parabolas obtained with Thomson’s positive ray apparatus.

The ratio of the masses of the particles for the two parabolas is given by





= (Y










. The parabolas with negative y are obtained by

reversing the magnetic 





J. Chem. Soc., Dalton Trans., 1998, 3893–3899


traces. If the mass is known for one of the parabolas, measure-

ments of the y values at constant x give the values of all the

other masses. The axis Ox is not marked on the photograph.

The magnetic 

field is therefore reversed for the second half of

the exposure, which puts the pattern in the 

Ϫy region and

allows the y values to be measured.

When Aston arrived at the Cavendish Laboratory in 1909

Thomson’s positive ray apparatus was already working. With

his assistance the apparatus was greatly improved, and by 1912

parabolas corresponding to mass di

fferences of 10% could be

resolved. In November of that year some gas containing neon

was analysed. The photograph, Fig. 5, showed a strong

parabola corresponding to a mass of 20 (on the scale oxygen


16) and a much weaker one at a mass of 22.


 Various possi-

bilities for the 22 parabola were considered. One was that it was

due to doubly charged CO


. However, when the gas was passed

through liquid air, the parabola at 44, due to singly charged



, disappeared, while the one at 22 was not a

ffected. Another

speculation was that the 22 trace was due to a compound




From density measurements the atomic weight of neon was

known to be 20.2. So the novel, and at the time revolutionary,

suggestion was made that neon could exist in two forms, which

were isotopes, just like the isotopes suggested by Soddy in

radioactive elements. If the isotope of mass 20 was 9 times

more abundant than the one of mass 22, that would give the

measured atomic weight of 20.2. In other words, neon did not

consist of identical atoms of mass 20.2, but of two di


atoms of mass 20 and 22, in line with Prout’s hypothesis.

Aston set to work to see if he could separate the two con-

stituents of neon. He 

first tried fractional distillation, but with-

out success. He then tried di

ffusion through fine pores, using

clay tobacco pipes, and after much labour obtained a small




 Then, in his own words ‘the whole of the lightest

fraction was lost by a most unfortunate accident’. (It is said that

he dropped the 

flask containing the specimen!) However,

undeterred, he carried on with the heaviest fraction and ultim-

ately obtained two samples with densities 20.15 and 20.28 on

Fig. 5

Positive ray parabolas of neon obtained by Thomson in 1912.

the scale O


= 32. These results were just on the borderline of

the experimental uncertainty.

The work was interrupted by the 

first World War. Aston

was sent to the Royal Aircraft Factory, later the Royal Aircraft

Establishment, at Farnborough. Frederick Lindemann, later

Lord Cherwell, and George Thomson (J. J. Thomson’s son)

were also there. In after years Thomson recollected that Linde-

mann was sceptical of Aston’s isotope hypothesis, preferring

the idea of CO


 or NeH


 for the 22 parabola.


 He said that

Lindemann was a much better theoretician than Aston and

always won the argument, but Aston ‘had faith and next morn-

ing was still of the same opinion’. In 1914 Aston crashed in an

experimental aeroplane, but escaped unhurt. He worked at

Farnborough as a chemist, studying among other things the

properties of the doped canvas with which aeroplanes were then



first mass spectrograph

After the war Aston returned to the Cavendish Laboratory.

While at Farnborough he had meditated on an improved form

of the apparatus to measure the masses of the positive ions, and

in 1919 he built his 

first mass spectrograph.


 Like Thomson’s

parabola apparatus it employed electric and magnetic 

fields to


flect the particles, but the two fields were in different regions

along the path of the particles. Unlike Thomson’s apparatus in

which particles with the same e/m value, but di

fferent velocities,

were distributed along the parabola, in Aston’s spectrograph

these particles were focused to the same point on the screen.

This was a big advantage. The focused beam was much more

intense, thus permitting 

finer slits to be used, which improved

the resolution and accuracy of the instrument.

The principle of the instrument is illustrated in Fig. 6. The

path of the positive particles emerging from the discharge tube

is de

fined by a pair of narrow slits S


 and S


. The particles then

pass between a pair of plates P


 and P


 across which a potential


fference is applied. The particles are deflected downwards by

the electric 

field towards the negative plate P


. They are


flected continuously in the region between the plates, but as a

first approximation we may assume that the paths come from a

point Z in the middle of the plates on the line de

fined by S





. A group of the rays is allowed to pass through a narrow

diaphragm D, which selects those de

flected through angles


θ and θ ϩ δθ. They then pass between the poles of an

electromagnet which has its north pole above the plane of the

diagram. This de

flects the particles in the opposite direction to

that of the electric 


The same notation is used as in the discussion of Thomson’s

apparatus. Eqns. (2) and (4) still apply. For particles of velocity

v, charge e and mass m, the electric 

field E gives a deflection θ,

and the magnetic 

field B gives a deflection φ. The position of

the diaphragm D 

fixes the angle θ, and hence the velocity of the

particles passing through. The spread 

δθ in θ gives rise to a


δυ in υ, which in turn gives a spread δφ in the deflection

produced by the magnetic 

field. The relations between δθ, δυ


δφ are obtained from eqns. (2) and (4). For a constant value

Fig. 6

The paths of the particles in Aston’s mass spectrograph. The

particles have the same mass value but varying velocities. The path of

the fastest particles is shown in blue and that of the slowest in red. For

clarity the electric and magnetic de

flections are shown as abrupt

changes in direction, rather than the actual continuous changes shown

in Figs. 2 and 3.





J. Chem. Soc., Dalton Trans., 1998,  3893–3899

of  e/m

θ is proportional to 1/υ


, and 

φ is proportional to 1/υ.




= Ϫ2






= Ϫ






δφ/δθ = φ/2θ.


The minus signs in eqns. (7) indicate that the faster particles,

indicated by the blue path in Fig. 6, are de

flected less in both the

electric and the magnetic 

fields than the slower particles indi-

cated in red. Since the electric and magnetic de

flections are in

opposite directions the rays passing through D are brought

together at a point F.

It is readily shown that the angle between the line ZF and the

initial direction ZC of the particles is equal to 

θ. Fig. 7 shows

the mean paths of the particles. The angle between FZ and OZ

is denoted by 

ρ, where O is the centre of the magnetic field. The

angle GOF

= φ, and ZFO = φ Ϫ ρ. Now ρ and φ Ϫ ρ are small;

in Aston’s apparatus they were of the order of 1/10 rad. The

line LM in Fig. 6 is therefore almost perpendicular to the lines

ZL, ZM, FL and FM, and, to good approximation, its length

is given by


aδθ = b(δφ Ϫ δθ),


where a and b are the lengths OZ and OF. Similarly, in Fig. 7, if

ON is the perpendicular from O to the line ZF, its length is


aρ = b(φ Ϫ ρ).


Therefore, from eqns. (10) and (9),




φ Ϫ ρ



δφ Ϫ δθ
















The last step follows from eqn. (8). Eqn. (12) shows that

ρ = 2θ, i.e. the angle FZC = θ. The position of the point F on

the line ZB depends on the value of 

φ, and hence from eqn. (4)

on the value of e/m. So particles with di

fferent e/m values come

Fig. 7

Mean paths of the particles in Aston’s mass spectrograph: Z is

the centre of the electric 

field, and O the centre of the magnetic field;


a, OF = b.

to a focus at di

fferent points along the line ZB. A photographic

plate is placed along this line to record the traces.

The position of the focus point on the line ZB for a given e/m

value may be calculated from the values of EB, and the geom-

etry of the apparatus. However, the quantities required are the

ratios of masses, and these are obtained most accurately by

empirical methods. Aston 

first calibrated the instrument using a

set of lines given by atoms and compounds with masses spread

over a suitable range, and whose relative masses were known to

the accuracy required. An example of such a set was: 6, C



; 8,




; 12, C; 16, O; 28, CO; 32, O


; 44, CO


. (The integer before

each atom or compound is the e

ffective mass number, i.e. the

actual mass number divided by the number of charges on the

ion.) This provided a set of points on a calibration curve. He

filled in the gaps between the calibration points by taking the

spectrum with the same set of ions, which were made to give

lines at a di

fferent place by changing the value of the magnetic


Aston gave a preliminary account of the spectrograph in

August 1919.


 The instrument was an immediate success. The

two isotopes of neon, mass 20 and 22, were easily resolved.


Similarly, chlorine was found to be a mixture of isotopes of

mass 35 and 37.


 By the time his 

first book Isotopes appeared

in 1922 he had studied 27 elements.


 Among them were the

following (masses, where oxygen is 16, in parentheses): lithium

(7, 6), boron (11, 10), magnesium (24, 25, 26), argon (40, 36),

krypton (84, 86, 82, 83, 80, 78) and xenon (129, 132, 131, 134,

136, 128, 130). The isotopes are given in the order of the inten-

sities of the lines. Reproductions of the spectra for neon and

chlorine are given in Fig. 8.

Although the discovery of many isotopes in light non-

radioactive elements was of great importance, even more sig-


ficant was Aston’s result that the masses of all the particles

are whole numbers. (The only exception was that of hydrogen

whose mass was 1.008, see below.) This whole number rule as it

was called gave a simple model for the atomic nucleus. The only

particles known at the time were the proton and the electron,

with relative masses of 1837. It was therefore proposed that the

nucleus of an isotope of mass M and charge Z, both being

integers, consisted of M protons and M

Ϫ Z electrons. Thus,

for example, the nucleus of 


Li consisted of 7 protons and 4

electrons, while that of 


Li consisted of 6 protons and 3 elec-

trons. Although this model gave the correct mass and charge of

the nucleus, and satis

fied the whole number rule, it had two

grave defects. First, from the uncertainty principle, if an elec-

tron were con

fined to a region as small as an atomic nucleus, its

momentum and hence energy would be much larger than the

binding energy of the nucleus. Secondly, the spins of some of

the nuclei were anomalous on this model. For example, the

nucleus of 


N would consist of 14 protons and 7 electrons,

giving a total of 21 particles. Since the spin of both the proton

and the electron is ¹¯², the spin of the nucleus with an odd number

of particles would be half-integral; in fact the spin of 


N is 1.

The discovery of the neutron by James Chadwick


 in 1932

removed these di

fficulties. The present model is that a nucleus

of charge Z and mass number M contains Z protons and


Ϫ Z neutrons. Isotopes are thus nuclei with the same number

of protons and a di

fferent number of neutrons. They have the

same chemical properties, but di

fferent nuclear properties.

Fig. 8

Mass spectra obtained by Aston, 1919–1920, of (a) neon showing the 20 and 22 isotopes, and (b) chlorine showing the 35 and 37 isotopes.


A number of other ions are present in both spectra. For example, the line at 28, prominent in both spectra, is due to CO. The lines at 36 and 38,

present in the chlorine spectrum, are due to H


Cl and H



J. Chem. Soc., Dalton Trans., 1998, 3893–3899


There are no electrons in the nucleus, and the nucleus 



contains 14, an even number, of particles of spin ¹¯².


first mass spectrograph could separate particles with

a mass di

fference of 1 in 130, which may be compared with a

value of about 1 in 10 for Thomson’s parabola apparatus. The

values of the masses were obtained with an accuracy of about 1

part in 1000.

The second and third mass spectrographs

Aston and other scientists soon grasped the reason for the

departure of the mass value of hydrogen from an integral

value, namely that it is the only atom with a non-composite

nucleus. The masses of all the other atoms are reduced owing

to the binding energy of their constituents, which results in

hydrogen having a slightly higher mass relative to its mass

number. The next step in mass spectrometry was therefore to

improve the accuracy of the instrument to measure

divergences from the whole number rule for all the atoms,

which would give basic information on the binding forces

within nuclei. For nuclei with mass numbers greater than

about 20, the binding energy per nucleon is roughly constant,

with a value between 8 and 9 MeV, which is about 1% of the

energy equivalent of the mass of a nucleon. So to determine

the binding energy to 1% the mass of the nucleus must be

measured to an accuracy of about 1 part in 10


. Aston started

designing an improved version of his spectrograph in 1921,

though he continued to use the original instrument until it was

dismantled in 1925.

In the second mass spectrograph 

finer slits were used and

they were placed farther apart, thus more accurately de


the paths of the particles.


 The electric de

flecting plates were

curved, so that the particles remained midway between them

as they were de

flected. The electric deflection θ was doubled

to 1/6 rad. The potential for the de

flection came from a set of

500 accumulators, each one built by Aston himself. They were

charged twice a year and gave a voltage constant to better

than 1 part in 10


 during a single experiment. To achieve a

constant magnetic 

field with minimum heating, the core of the

magnet was wound with over 6000 turns of wire weighing

over 100 kg. A current of 1 A through the coils produced a


field of 1.6 T, which was sufficient to deflect the

heaviest and most energetic particles through an angle 

φ of

2/3 rad. (A detailed calculation shows that, when 

φ = 4θ, the

position of the line varies linearly with mass, which is con-

venient for interpolation.) The pole pieces of the magnet were

greatly reduced by changing their cross-section from the circu-

lar shape of the 

first instrument to a sickle shape, thereby

producing a magnetic 

field only in the region close to the

particle beam. Aston demonstrated the improved resolving

power of the second instrument by separating six isotopes of

mercury with mass numbers ranging from 198 to 204.



the original instrument the lines appeared as an unresolved


Aston’s third mass spectrograph in 1937 incorporated further



 The widths of the collimating slits could be

adjusted externally, obviating the laborious opening of the

apparatus which was necessary for such adjustments in the 


two instruments. The stability of the magnetic 

field was

improved by monitoring its strength with a 

fluxmeter; in the

previous instruments only the exciting current had been kept

constant. Any variation in the magnetic 

field was compensated

for by manual adjustment of a spiral mercury resistor. Another

advance was in the greatly improved sensitivity of the photo-

graphic plates used to record the lines, which resulted after

extensive trials carried out with the collaboration of the Ilford

photographic company.

The biggest advance came in the use of the doublet method

for comparing two masses. This consists of measuring the small


fference in the masses of two ions with the same mass number

M. The mass of an atom X with mass number M is denoted by



X). Since the value of m is close to the integer M, we may

express it as




M(1 ϩ δ),



δ, known as the packing fraction, is small compared to 1.

As an example we show how Aston measured the mass of the

hydrogen atom in terms of the mass of the carbon atom. He

measured the di

fference in mass ∆


 between the deuterium atom

and the hydrogen molecule (doublet with M

= 2), and the dif-



 between the masses of the triatomic deuterium

molecule and the doubly charged carbon atom (doublet with


= 6). Then


= 2m(



Ϫ m(





ϩ δ



Ϫ 2(1 ϩ δ



= 2δ


Ϫ 2δ





= 3m(



Ϫ m(








ϩ δ



Ϫ 6(1 ϩ δ



= 6δ


Ϫ 6δ






Ϫ δ


= (3∆


ϩ ∆




Aston’s values for 




 were (15.2 ± 0.4) × 10



(423.6 ± 1.8) × 10


 respectively, giving 



Ϫ δ


= (78.2 ± 0.4) ×




At the time of Aston’s measurements the atomic mass unit,

denoted by u, was de

fined by taking the mass of the atom 


O to

be exactly 16, but in 1962 the de

finition was changed


 so that

the mass of the atom 


C is taken as exactly 12, i.e. 



= 0. Thus

on the present scale Aston’s value for the packing fraction  of

hydrogen was 



= (78.2 ± 0.4) × 10


, giving m(



= 1.00782 ±

0.00004 u. The example shows the intrinsic advantage of the

method of measuring the di

fference in mass of doublets with

the same mass number. The mass di

fferences ∆





measured to accuracies of the order of 1%, but the mass of the

hydrogen atom obtained is accurate to 4 parts in 10


. It may be

noted that Aston’s value is in complete agreement with the

present value,





= 1.00782504 ± 0.00000001 u.

The particles whose masses are measured in the spectrograph

are ions that have lost one or more electrons, but the mass

values quoted relate to the neutral atoms, i.e. the mass of one

or more electrons is added to the measured masses. The mass

of the electron, 5.486 × 10


 u, is small but not negligible at

the accuracy of Aston’s measurements. On the other hand,

the binding energies of the atoms in a molecule, being of

the order of electronvolts, correspond to mass values of the

order of 10


 u. So the mass of a diatomic molecule such as

hydrogen may be taken to be twice the mass of the hydrogen


Aston improved the resolving power of his spectrographs

from 130 for the 

first instrument to 600 for the second and 2000

for the third. He claimed an accuracy of 1 in 10


 for the second

instrument and approaching 1 in 10


 for the third. If we com-

pare his mass values (changing them to the 


C scale) with the

present-day values, which are accurate to about 1 in 10



better, the di

fferences for the values obtained from the 1927

instrument are on average about 1.5 in 10


, and for the 1937

values about 2.5 in 10


. So his claimed accuracy is well substan-

tiated. The third mass spectrograph, without the magnetic 


components, is in the Museum of the Cavendish Laboratory;

it is shown in Fig. 9. Aston’s 

first mass spectrograph is in the

Science Museum in South Kensington.

Other workers and modern developments

Although Aston is recognised as the pioneer in mass spec-

troscopy there were other major workers in the 

field from 1918

onwards. Arthur Dempster, at the University of Chicago, con-


J. Chem. Soc., Dalton Trans., 1998,  3893–3899

structed a mass spectrograph in 1918


 and in the next few

years found isotopes in magnesium, lithium, potassium, cal-

cium and zinc. His instrument involved bending monoenergetic

ions into a semicircular path by a uniform magnetic 

field, which

gives direction focusing, i.e. ions diverging in direction at the

entrance to the magnetic 

field are brought to a focus after

completing a semicircle. Kenneth Bainbridge, at the Franklin

Institute, Swarthmore, improved on Dempster’s instrument by

using a velocity 

filter before the magnetic analyser, thereby

removing the need for a monoenergetic source.


 With his

apparatus he made the 

first measurement of the mass of the

deuterium atom


 and also provided one of the 

first experi-

mental demonstrations of Einstein’s mass-energy relation.


The detailed motions of ions in electric and magnetic 


were calculated by Richard Herzog and Josef Mattauch in



 and others in the early thirties. The results led to the

design of high-resolution double-focusing instruments in which

ions with both a spread in velocities and a spread in initial

directions were brought to a focus. Instruments making use of

double focusing were built by Alfred Nier at the University

Fig. 9

Aston’s third mass spectrograph, now in the the Museum of

the Cavendish Laboratory. The discharge tube is on the right. The white

discs are for adjusting the widths of the slits S


 and S


. The magnet, not

shown, acts over the region of the tube in the left-hand wooden sup-

port. The photographic plate is placed in the focus plane just before the

left end of the tube to record the spectra. The overall length of the

instrument, excluding the discharge tube, is 105 cm.

Fig. 10

Aston working with his apparatus for the separation of the

isotopes of neon by fractional distillation, 1914.

of Minnesota


 and several other workers.


 Further improve-

ments came from replacing photographic plates by electrical

detectors and from advances in vacuum technology.


 The value

of 2000 for the resolving power of Aston’s third mass spectro-

graph has been extended to values exceeding 10


, and accur-

acies of the order of 1 part in 10


 or 10


 have been obtained.


Mass spectroscopy is now applied in several branches of

chemistry, biology, geology, and physics. In many of these

applications the classical method of electrostatic and magnetic


flection described in this paper has been replaced by timing

methods. The highest precisions are obtained by cyclotron

resonance in which the frequencies of ions rotating in a uniform


field are measured and analysed by Fourier transform

techniques. Sophisticated ionisation methods have been

developed for the analysis of complex biomolecules and



Aston’s later life


first mass spectrograph brought him immediate

acclaim. He was appointed to a Fellowship in Trinity College,

Cambridge in 1920 and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society

in 1921. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1922

for, in the words of the citation, ‘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

Fig. 11

The research students and sta

ff of the Cavendish Laboratory

in 1922, the year that Aston was awarded the Nobel Prize. Aston is

fourth from the left in the front row, Thomson is 

fifth, and Rutherford,

the Cavendish Professor, is sixth. Edward Appleton is second from the

right in the front row, Patrick Blackett is second from the right in the

second row, and Peter Kapitza is at the right-hand end of the back row.

Fig. 12

Aston working with his third mass spectrograph, ca. 1937.




J. Chem. Soc., Dalton Trans., 1998, 3893–3899


number rule’. In proposing the toast of the laureates at a dinner

in December of that year, Svante Arrhenius, the Director of

the Nobel Institute, commented that never before had the

Nobel Prize been handed over to a group of such distinguished

laureates, which, besides Aston, included Niels Bohr, Albert

Einstein, and Frederick Soddy. The last two were the 1921 prize

winners in Physics and Chemistry respectively, but the awards

were made in 1922.

Aston never married and for the last 35 years of his life lived

in Trinity College. Outside his work his main interests were

sport, travel and music. He was a keen cross-country skier, and

played tennis up to tournament class. He played golf in a

famous foursome with Ernest Rutherford, Ralph Fowler, and


ffrey (G. I.) Taylor. He was an enthusiastic cyclist, once

cycling 200 miles in 22 h. He was also an excellent photographer

and combined this hobby with his love of travel to help at

several solar eclipse expeditions. He was an omnivorous reader,

Sherlock Holmes being his favourite. An acquaintance once

described him as the highest lowbrow that he had ever met.

Aston died on 20 November 1945. In an obituary in Nature


G. P. Thomson wrote ‘Aston was a man in whom a great zest

for life was combined with a simplicity of character almost

approaching naivety. Though a good occasional lecturer, he

had no gift for teaching, and a few early attempts were not

persisted in. His attitude to physics was essentially that of the

experimenter and visualizer. He preferred the model to the

equation, the concrete to the abstract. He was a Conservative

in politics as in life, and though he would admit that a change

might be good, he preferred it to happen as gradually as


In summary, Aston was not only a one-experiment man, he

was e

ffectively a one-instrument man. However, what he meas-

ured was of the highest importance and he did it extremely well.

To quote G. P. Thomson once more,


 ‘Aston was a superb

experimenter. His 

first mass spectrograph was a triumph; few

but he could have got it to work at all’.


Fig. 8 is reproduced from the Philosophical Magazine, 1920, by

permission of Taylor & Francis. Figs. 5 and 9 to 12 are from the

Photographic Archives of the Cavendish Laboratory.


1 G. Hevesy, Obituary Notices Fellows R. Soc., 1948, 5, 635.

2 B. B. Boltwood, Am. J.  Sci., 1907, 24, 307. The nomenclature is that

used at the time. The thorium referred to here is 


Th; ionium is


Th; radium B, so called because it is one of the decay products

following from radium, is 



3 E. Rutherford and E. N. Da C. Andrade, Philos. Mag., 1914, 27,


4 F. Soddy, Nature  (London), 1913, 92, 399. The word isotope was

suggested to Soddy by Dr. Margaret Todd, a medical doctor with a

practical knowledge of Greek (A. Fleck, Biogr. Mem. Fellows R.

Soc., 1957, 3, 203).

5 E. Goldstein, Berlin Ber., 1886, 39, 691.

6 W. Wien, Verh. Phys. Gesell. Berlin, 1898, 17, 10.

7 J. J. Thomson, Philos. Mag., 1907, 13, 561.

8 J. J. Thomson, Royal Institution, Weekly Meeting, January 17, 1913.

9 The same method of gaseous di

ffusion was employed at Oak Ridge

during the second World War to separate the uranium isotopes 235

and 238 in the gas UF



10 G. P. Thomson, J. J. Thomson and the Cavendish Laboratory in his

Day, Nelson, London, 1964, p. 137.

11 F. W. Aston, Philos. Mag., 1919, 38, 707.

12 F. W. Aston, Nature (London), 1919, 104, 334.

13 F. W. Aston, Philos. Mag., 1920, 39, 449.

14 F. W. Aston, Philos. Mag., 1920, 39, 611.

15 F. W. Aston, Isotopes, Edward Arnold, London, 1922. Aston wrote

a second book in 1933, entitled Mass-Spectra and Isotopes, that

dealt more with the experimental results and less with the general

theory. This was followed by a second edition in 1942.

16 J. Chadwick, Proc. R. Soc. LondonSer. A, 1932, 136, 692.

17 F. W. Aston, Proc. R. Soc. LondonSer. A, 1927, 115, 487.

18 F. W. Aston, Nature (London), 1925, 116, 208.

19 F. W. Aston, Proc. R. Soc. LondonSer. A, 1937, 163, 391.

20 B. W. Petley, The Fundamental Physical Constants and the Frontier

of Measurement, Adam Hilger, Bristol and Boston, 1985, p. 93.

21 E. R. Cohen and B. N. Taylor, The 1986 Adjustment of the

Fundamental Physical Constants, Codata Bulletin, 63, Pergamon,

Oxford, 1986.

22 A. J. Dempster, Phys. Rev., 1918, 11, 316.

23 K. T. Bainbridge, Phys. Rev., 1932, 40, 130.

24 K. T. Bainbridge, Phys. Rev., 1932, 42, 1.

25 K. T. Bainbridge, Phys. Rev., 1933, 44, 123.

26 R. Herzog and J. H. E. Mattauch, Ann. Phys., 1934, 19, 345.

27 A. O. Nier, Rev. Sci. Instrum., 1960, 31, 1127.

28 H. E. Duckworth, R. C. Barber and V. S. Venkatasubramanian,

Mass Spectroscopy, 2nd edn., Cambridge University Press, 1986,

ch. 5. This book gives an excellent account of the subject.

29 The term mass spectrograph is reserved for an instrument that

records the spectra on a photographic plate, an instrument that

employs electrical detection being termed a mass spectrometer. The

last reported use of a mass spectrograph was in 1972.

30 Ref. 28, p. 159.

31 P. G. Gates, World Wide Web, http://www-methods.ch.cam.ac.uk

32 G. P. Thomson, Nature (London), 1946, 157, 290.

33 Ref. 10, p. 139.

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