We have addressed the need for improved measurements of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) by developing a continuous-flow instrument that provides in situ measurements of CCN. The design presented in this article can operate between 0.1 and 3% supersaturation, at sampling rates sufficient for airborne operation. The design constitutes a cylindrical continuous-flow thermal-gradient diffusion chamber employing a novel technique of generating a supersaturation: by establishing a constant streamwise temperature gradient so that the difference in water vapor and thermal diffusivity yield a quasi-uniform centerline supersaturation. Our design maximizes the growth rate of activated droplets, thereby enhancing the performance of the instrument. The temperature gradient and the flow through the column control the supersaturation and may be modified to retrieve CCN spectra. The principle of the CCN instrument was validated in controlled laboratory experiments at different operating conditions using a monodisperse aerosols with known composition and size. These experiments yield sharp activation curves, even for those kinetically limited particles that have not exceeded their critical diameter. The performance of the CCN instrument was also assessed using polydisperse laboratory-generated aerosol of known composition and size distributions similar to ambient particulate matter. In all tests, the measured CCN concentrations compared well with predicted values and highlight the instrument's ability to measure CCN at various size distributions. The full potential of the new design has yet to be explored; however, model simulations suggest that direct measurements in the climatically important range of supersaturations of less than 0.1% (certainly down to 0.07%) are possible. The new instrument clearly offers a unique level of design simplicity, robustness, and flexilibity (temperature control, large range of supersaturations without flow reversal, and multiple configurations for same super-saturation) necessary for atmospheric studies.