Francis William Aston was born on September 1, 1877 in Harborne, Birmingham, England. He was the third of three children of William Aston and Fanny Charlotte Hollis. He went to school at the Harborne Vicarage and then Malvern College, a boarding school, in Worcestershire.
In 1893, Aston attended Mason College (soon to become the University of Birmingham) where he excelled in chemistry and physics. At the same time, he conducted his own research in organic chemistry in a laboratory at his father’s house.
Aston won the Forster Scholarship and used it to study the optical properties of tartaric acid and its derivative compounds. In 1900, he left academia to work as a chemist for W. Butler and Co. Brewery. Here he lost interest in chemistry and developed his interest in physics while designing pumps to evacuate brewing vessels.
In 1903, Aston left the brewing company and returned to the University of Birmingham on a scholarship. He worked with John Henry Poynting on electronic discharge tubes. During this time he discovered what is now called the Aston Dark Space.
In 1909, J. J. Thomson invited Aston to work with him at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge. Thomson had discovered electrons in electronic discharge tubes and had moved on to study positive rays. Here, Aston invented the first mass spectrometer while discovering two isotopes of Neon. He used electric and magnetic fields to accelerate ions and separate them by mass and charge.
World War I interrupted Aston’s research and he worked as a technical assistant at the Royal Airforce Establishment in Farnborough. He created synthetid coatings for aircraft materials.
After the war, Aston returned to the Cavendish Lab to continue building and refining a mass spectrometer. He first reported on his creation in 1919. Eventually, he discovered 212 different natural isotopes and for this won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Also, through his work with isotopes, he discovered the "whole number rule." He found that isotopes have masses in whole numbers only. This had important implications for the development of nuclear energy.
Although he remained a bachelor and worked hard at his research, Aston maintained a rich personal life. He was an avid outdoorsman and athlete, enjoying skiing, skating, cycling, climbing, swimming, golf, and tennis. In 1902, he built an internal combustion engine (only recently invented) and entered the Gordon Bennett Race in Ireland. He also enjoyed traveling and did so extensively, and played the piano, violin, and cello at concerts at Cambridge. Aston died at Cambridge on November 20, 1945.