J J Thompson Discovery of Electron: Cathode Ray Tube Experiment Explained

JJ Thomson discovered the electron in 1897 and there are tons of videos about it.  However, most videos miss what JJ Thomson himself said was the motivating factor: a debate about how cathode rays move.  Want to know not only how but why electrons were discovered?  Let’s go!

A short history of Thomson: Joseph John Thomson, J J on papers, to friends, and even to his own son[1], was born in Lancashire, England to a middle-class bookseller.  When he was 14 years old, Thomson planned to get an apprenticeship as a locomotive engineer but it had a long waiting list, so, he applied to and was accepted at that very young age to Owen’s college.  Thompson later recalled that “the authorities at Owens College thought my admission was such a scandal – I expect they feared that students would soon be coming in perambulators  – that they passed regulations raising the minimum age for admission so that such a catastrophe should not happen again.[2]”  While in school, his father died, and his family didn’t have enough money for the apprenticeship.  Instead, he relied on scholarships at universities – ironically leading him too much greater fame in academia. In 1884, at the tender age of 28, Thomson applied to be the head of the Cavendish Research Institute.  He mostly applied as a lark and was as surprised as anyone to actually get the position!  “I felt like a fisherman who…had casually cast a line in an unlikely spot and hooked a fish much too heavy for him to land.[3]”  Suddenly, he had incredible resources, stability, and the ability to research whatever he wished.  He ended up having an unerring ability to pinpoint interesting phenomena for himself and for others. In fact, a full eight of his research assistants and his son eventually earned Nobel Prizes, but, of course, like Thomson’s own Nobel Prize, that was in the future.

JJ Thomson
JJ Thomson

Why did J. J. Thomson discover the electron in 1897?  Well, according to Thomson: “the discovery of the electron began with an attempt to explain the discrepancy between the behavior of cathode rays under magnetic and electric forces[4].”  What did he mean by that?  Well, a cathode ray, or a ray in a vacuum tube that emanates from the negative electrode, can be easily moved with a magnet.  This gave a charismatic English chemist named William Crookes the crazy idea that the cathode ray was made of charged particles in 1879!  However, 5 years later, a young German scientist named Heinrich Hertz found that he could not get the beam to move with parallel plates, or with an electric field.  Hertz decided that Crookes was wrong, if the cathode ray was made of charged particles then it should be attracted to a positive plate and repulsed from a negative plate.  Ergo, it couldn’t be particles, and Hertz decided it was probably some new kind of electromagnetic wave, like a new kind of ultraviolet light.  Further, in 1892, Hertz accidentally discovered that cathode rays could tunnel through thin pieces of metal, which seemed like further proof that Crookes was so very wrong.  Then, in December of 1895, a French physicist named Jean Perrin used a magnet to direct a cathode ray into and out of an electroscope (called a Faraday cylinder) and measured its charge.  Perrin wrote, “the Faraday cylinder became negatively charged when the cathode rays entered it, and only when they entered it; the cathode rays are thus charged with negative electricity.[5]”  This is why JJ Thomson was so confused, he felt that Perrin had, “conclusive evidence that the rays carried a charge of negative electricity” except that, “Hertz found that when they were exposed to an electric force they were not deflected at all.”  What was going on?

In 1896, Thomson wondered if there might have been something wrong with Hertz’s experiment with the two plates.  Thomson knew that the cathode ray tubes had only worked if there is little air in the tube and the amount of air needed depended on the shape of the terminals.  Thomson wondered if the air affected the results.  Through trial and error, Thomson found he could get a “stronger” beam by shooting it through a positive anode with a hole in it.  With this system he could evacuate the tube to a much higher degree and, if the vacuum was good enough, the cathode ray was moved by electrically charged plates, “just as negatively electrified particles would be. [6]” (If you are wondering why the air affected it, the air became ionized in the high electric field and became conductive.  The conductive air then acted like a Faraday cage shielding the beam from the electric field.)

As stated before, Heinrich Hertz also found that cathode rays could travel through thin solids.  How could a particle do that?  Thomson thought that maybe particles could go through a solid if they were moving really, really fast.  But how to determine how fast a ray was moving?  Thomson made an electromagnetic gauntlet.  First, Thomson put a magnet near the ray to deflect the ray one way and plates with an electric charge to deflect the ray the other way.  He then added or reduced the charge on the plates so that the forces were balanced and the ray went in a straight line.  He knew that the force from the magnet depended on the charge of the particle, its speed, and the magnetic field (given the letter B).  He also knew that the electric force from the plates only depended on the charge of the particle and the Electric field.  Since these forces were balanced, Thomson could determine the speed of the particles from the ratio of the two fields.  Thomson found speeds as big as 60,000 miles per second or almost one-third of the speed of light.  Thomson recalled, “In all cases when the cathode rays are produced their velocity is much greater than the velocity of any other moving body with which we are acquainted.[7]”  

Thomson then did something even more ingenious; he removed the magnetic field.  Now, he had a beam of particles moving at a known speed with a single force on them.  They would fall, as Thomson said, “like a bullet projected horizontally with a velocity v and falling under gravity[8]”.   Note that these “bullets” are falling because of the force between their charge and the charges on the electric plates as gravity is too small on such light objects to be influential.  By measuring the distance the bullets went he could determine the time they were in the tube and by the distance they “fell” Thomson could determine their acceleration.  Using F=ma Thomson determine the ratio of the charge on the particle to the mass (or e/m).  He found some very interesting results.  First, no matter what variables he changed in the experiment, the value of e/m was constant.  “We may… use any kind of substance we please for the electrodes and fill the tube with the gas of any kind and yet the value of e/m will remain the same. [9]”  This was a revolutionary result.  Thomson concluded that everything contained these tiny little things that he called corpuscles (and we call electrons).  He also deduced that the “corpuscles” in one item are exactly the same as the “corpuscles” in another.  So, for example, an oxygen molecule contains the same kind of electrons as a piece of gold!  Atoms are the building blocks of matter but inside the atoms (called subatomic) are these tiny electrons that are the same for everything.

Cathode Ray Tube Experiments by J. J. Thomson

The other result he found was that the value of e/m was gigantic, 1,700 times bigger than the value for a charged Hydrogen atom, the object with the largest value of e/m before this experiment.   So, either the “corpuscle” had a ridiculously large charge or it was, well, ridiculously small.   

A student of Thomson’s named C. T. R. Wilson had experimented with slowly falling water droplets that found that the charge on the corpuscles was, to the accuracy of the experiment, the same as the charge on a charged Hydrogen atom!   Thomson concluded that his corpuscles were just very, very, tiny, about 1,700 times smaller than the Hydrogen atom[1].  These experiments lead Thomson to come to some interesting conclusions:

  1. Electrons are in everything and are well over a thousand times smaller than even the smallest atom. 
  2. Benjamin Franklin thought positive objects had too much “electrical fire” and negative had too little.  Really, positive objects have too few electrons and negative have too many.  Oops.
  3. Although since Franklin, people thought current flowed from the positive side to the negative, really, the electrons are flowing the other way.  When a person talks about “current” that flows from positive to negative they are talking about something that is not real!   True “electric current” flows from negative to positive and is the real way the electrons move. [although by the time that people believed J.J. Thomson, it was too late to change our electronics, so people just decided to stick with “current” going the wrong way!]
  4. Since electrons are tiny and in everything but most things have a neutral charge, and because solid objects are solid, the electrons must be swimming in a sea of soup of positive charges.  Like raisons in a raison cookie.

The first three are still considered correct over one hundred years later.  The forth theory, the “plum pudding model” named after a truly English “desert” with raisins in sweet bread that the English torture people with during Christmas, was proposed by Thomson in 1904.  In 1908, a former student of Thomson’s named Ernest Rutherford was experimenting with radiation, and inadvertently demolished the “plum pudding model” in the process.  However, before I can get into Rutherford’s gold foil experiment, I first want to talk about what was going on in France concurrent with Thomson’s experiments.  This is a story of how a new mother working mostly in a converted shed discovered and named the radium that Rutherford was experimenting with.  That woman’s name was Marie Sklodowska Curie, and that story is next time on the Lightning Tamers.


[1] the current number is 1,836 but Thomson got pretty close


[1] p 14 “Flash of the Cathode Rays: A History of JJ Thomson’s Electron” Dahl

[2] Thompson, J.J. Recollections and Reflections p. 2 Referred to in Davis & Falconer JJ. Thompson and the Discovery of the Electron 2002 p. 3

[3] Thomson, Joseph John Recollections and Reflections p. 98 quoted in Davis, E.A & Falconer, Isabel JJ Thomson and the Discovery of the Electron 2002 p. 35

[4]  Thomson, JJ Recollections and Reflections p. 332-3

[5] “New Experiments on the Kathode Rays” Jean Perrin, December 30, 1985 translation appeared in Nature, Volume 53, p 298-9, January 30, 1896

[6] Nobel Prize speech?

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

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