John Compton was educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham and then studied as an apprentice with Halmshaw & Sons in Birmingham. In 1898 he joined Brindley and Foster in Sheffield. Then he joined Charles Lloyd in Nottingham.
He set up the business Musson & Compton in 1902 in Nottingham with James Frederick Musson. The partnership dissolved in 1904. In 1919, the business moved to workshops at Turnham Green Terrace, Chiswick, London, which had been vacated by August Gern. He occupied a new factory at Chase Road, Park Royal, North Acton, London in 1930.
Compton worked primarily on electric-action pipe organs and electronic organs. Compton's first electronic instrument was the Melotone (a solo voice added to theatre organs); next came the Theatrone. The Electrone, an electrostatic tonewheel instrument introduced in 1938, evolved out of research by Leslie Bourn, an association begun in the 1920s. Throughout his organ-building career, John Compton was assisted by the very capable and inventive James Isaac Taylor. The company were awarded many original patents in things ranging from simple organ mechanisms to the most complex, state of the art electronic and electrical inventions.
On 13 June 1940, during World War II, Compton was arrested while holidaying on the island of Capri, in Italy. He was interned as an enemy alien but spent much of his time restoring pipe organs, before being permitted to return to England.
Compton died in 1957, and the business continued under the direction of his right-hand man, James I Taylor. Taylor died the year after in 1958, and the business was wound up around 1965. The pipe organ department was sold to Rushworth and Dreaper; the electronic department became Makin Organs.
Compton cinema organs, built by the John Compton Organ Company of Acton, were the most prevalent of theatre organs in the UK; 261 were installed in cinemas and theatres in the British Isles. Comptons made many fine church and concert organs as well. Their cinema organs employed the latest technology and engineering and many are still in existence today. One of the most notable is the large 5 manual example at the Odeon Cinema Leicester Square in central London.