Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Ernest Walton


Nobel Prize WinnerScientist
Ernest Walton

Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton (1903-1995) was a Nobel Prize-winning Irish physicist.

Walton was born at Dungarvan, County Waterford, Ireland, on October 6, 1903. In 1922, he matriculated to Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied mathematics and experimental science, specializing in physics. He received his B.S. in 1926 and his M.Sc. in 1927. That same year, he moved to Cambridge University, where he worked at Cavendish Laboratory under Sir Ernest Rutherford.

At Cavendish, Walton received his Ph.D. (in 1931) and went to work on methods for producing fast particles and on linear particle accelerators. Working with John Cockcroft, Walton built an apparatus to show that light elements disintegrated when bombarded with fast protons. Using enormously high voltages — 700,000 volts — Walton bombarded a piece of lithium with fast particles, splitting the lithium into helium atoms or “alpha particles,” which he later described as looking like “twinkling stars.” This was the first ever experiment to split the atom.

In 1934, Walton returned to Trinity College, where he took up a post as a lecturer in the physics department. In 1938, Walton and Cockcroft received the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society, and in 1951 they shared the Nobel Prize in physics for “work on the transmutation of the atomic nuclei by artificially accelerated atomic particles.” Walton died June 25, 1995, in Belfast, age 91.

Ernest Walton's Timeline
1903 Oct 6th Born in Dungarvan, County Waterford, Ireland.
1922 Matriculated to Trinity College.
1927 Went to work at Cavendish Laboratory.
1931 Conducted first atom-splitting experiment.
1951 Received the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on splitting the atom.
1995 Jun 25th Died in Belfast.

Related Profiles

Harry Palevsky

Los Alamos, NM

Harry Palevsky (1919-1990) was an American engineer. A Chicago native, Palevsky began his work on the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory shortly after finishing his undergraduate career at Northwestern University.

Geoffrey F. Chew

Los Alamos, NM

Geoffrey Chew was an American physicist. Born and raised in Washington, DC, Chew graduated from high school at the age of 16.

Marvin Fox

Columbia University

Dr. Marvin Fox (1910-1965) was an American physicist. As a Ph.D. student at Columbia University, Fox worked with Isidor Rabi and Harold Urey, with whom he collaborated on isotope separation studies.

Floyd Owen Slate

Decatur, IL

Professor Floyd Owen Slate (1920-2008) worked on the Manhattan Project at Decatur, IL and at Columbia University.