Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton, Irish physicist, is born in Abbeyside, Dungarvan, County Waterford on October 6, 1903. He is the corecipient, with Sir John Douglas Cockcroft of England, of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Physics for the development of the first nuclear particle accelerator, known as the Cockcroft-Walton generator.
Walton is the son of a Methodist minister, Rev John Walton (1874–1936), and Anna Sinton (1874–1906). In those days a general clergyman’s family moves once every three years, and this practice carries him and his family, while he is a small child, to Rathkeale, County Limerick, where his mother dies, and to County Monaghan. He attends day schools in counties Down and Tyrone, and at Wesley College in Dublin before becoming a boarder at Methodist College Belfast in 1915, where he excels in science and mathematics. He obtains degrees in mathematics and experimental science from Trinity College Dublin in 1926.
Walton goes to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1927 where he works with Cockcroft in the Cavendish Laboratory under Ernest Rutherford until 1934. In 1928 he attempts two methods of high-energy particle acceleration. Both fail, mainly because the available power sources could not generate the necessary energies, but his methods are later developed and used in the betatron and the linear particle accelerator. In 1929 Cockcroft and Walton devise an accelerator that generates large numbers of particles at lower energies. With this device in 1932 they disintegrate lithium nuclei with protons, the first artificial nuclear reaction not utilizing radioactive substances and so becomes the first person in history to split the atom.
After gaining his Ph.D. at Cambridge, Walton returns to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1934, where he remains as a fellow for the next 40 years and a fellow emeritus thereafter. He is Erasmus Smith Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy from 1946 to 1974 and chairman of the School of Cosmic Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies after 1952.
Although he retires from Trinity College Dublin in 1974, he retains his association with the Physics Department at Trinity up to his final illness. His is a familiar face in the tea-room. Shortly before his death he marks his lifelong devotion to Trinity by presenting his Nobel medal and citation to the college. Ernest Walton dies at the age of 91 in Belfast on June 25, 1995. He is buried in Deans Grange Cemetery in Dublin.
(Pictured: Ernest T.S. Walton, 1951, by Nobel foundation)