Abstract. We introduce a new instrument for the measurement of in situ ambient aerosol extinction over the 300–700 nm wavelength range, the Spectral Aerosol Extinction (SpEx) instrument. This measurement capability is envisioned to complement existing in situ instrumentation, allowing for simultaneous measurement of the evolution of aerosol optical, chemical, and physical characteristics in the ambient environment. In this work, a detailed description of the instrument is provided along with characterization tests performed in the laboratory. Measured spectra of NO2 and polystyrene latex spheres (PSLs) agreed well with theoretical calculations. Good agreement was also found with simultaneous aerosol extinction measurements at 450, 530, and 630 nm using CAPS PMex instruments in a series of 22 tests including non-absorbing compounds, dusts, soot, and black and brown carbon analogs. SpEx can more accurately distinguish the presence of brown carbon from other absorbing aerosol due to its 300 nm lower wavelength limit compared to measurements limited to visible wavelengths. Extinction spectra obtained with SpEx contain more information than can be conveyed by a simple power law fit (typically represented by Ångström Exponents). Planned future improvements aim to lower detection limits and ruggedize the instrument for mobile operation.