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O ne hundred years ago, amidst glowing glass tubes and the hum of electricity, the British physicist J.J. Thomson was venturing into the interior of the atom. At the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, Thomson was experimenting with currents of electricity inside empty glass tubes. He was investigating a long-standing puzzle known as "cathode rays." His experiments prompted him to make a bold proposal: these mysterious rays are streams of particles much smaller than atoms, they are in fact minuscule pieces of atoms. He called these particles "corpuscles," and suggested that they might make up all of the matter in atoms. It was startling to imagine a particle residing inside the atom--most people thought that the atom was indivisible, the most fundamental unit of matter.

A simple cathode ray tube.

Thomson in his office.

Thomson's speculation was not unambiguously supported by his experiments. It took more experimental work by Thomson and others to sort out the confusion. The atom is now known to contain other particles as well. Yet Thomson's bold suggestion that cathode rays were material constituents of atoms turned out to be correct. The rays are made up of electrons: very small, negatively charged particles that are indeed fundamental parts of every atom.
"Could anything at first sight seem more impractical than a body which is so small that its mass is an insignificant fraction of the mass of an atom of hydrogen?"
-- J.J. Thomson.

Modern ideas and technologies based on the electron, leading to television and the computer and much else, evolved through many difficult steps. Thomson's careful experiments and adventurous hypotheses were followed by crucial experimental and theoretical work by many others in the United Kingdom, Germany, France and elsewhere. These physicists opened for us a new perspective--a view from inside the atom.

Table of Contents:

Exhibit Home
J.J. Thomson
Mysterious Rays
1897 Experiments
Corpuscles to Electrons
Legacy for Today
Exhibit Info

Mysterious Rays

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