J.J. Thomson’s cathode ray tube experiments led to a very important scientific discovery, the electron.
In this lesson learn what a cathode ray tube is and how J.J. Thomson made his discovery.
Cathode Ray Tubes in Your Home
You might have used a cathode ray tube even if you’ve never even heard of it until reading this lesson.
Before LCD and Plasma TVs became commonplace, most people used bulkier cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions. The CRT in a television is used to display images on your screen. However, cathode ray tubes have been used for more than entertainment.
It was cathode ray tubes that allowed the English physicist J.J. Thomson to discover the existence of electrons in 1897.
How Cathode Ray Tubes Work
Before we see how J.J. Thomson used the cathode ray tube to discover the electron, we need to know how a cathode ray tube works. We’ll look at a basic CRT like what J.J.
Thomson would’ve used, as seen in the diagram below.
The CRT consists of several elements starting with a tube that’s vacuum sealed to keep air out of it. On one side of the inside of the tube there’s a cathode and an anode. The cathode is a negatively-charged conductor, and the anode is a positively-charged conductor. Electrons, which have a negative charge, flow off the cathode and are attracted towards the anode.
A small hole in the anode allows some electrons to pass through it, creating a beam of electrons. On the opposite side of the tube is a coating that glows when struck by the electrons. This allowed J. J. Thomson to see where the electron beam was hitting.Of course, before his experiment, we didn’t know electrons existed. So, no one was calling it an electron beam.
Instead, what flowed off the cathode toward the anode were called ‘cathode rays.’ Hence the name cathode ray tube.
The Three Experiments
Thomson’s discovery of electrons didn’t happen all at once. Instead, it was a result that was slowly built towards over the course of three different experiments. Before Thomson’s experiments, it had already been discovered that the cathode rays deposit an electric charge. This was done by putting an electrometer at the opposite end from the cathode and anode. When the cathode rays hit the electrometer, it measured an electric charge.The first experiment was done in order to see if the charge was separate from the cathode rays. Thomson used a magnet to bend the cathode rays away from the electrometers.
When he did this, he discovered that the electrometers stopped measuring electric charge. From this he deduced that the electric charge and the cathode rays must be combined together and not separate entities.Next, J.J.
Thomson set out to determine if the charge carried by the cathode rays was negative or positive. To do this he would use an electric field. He put a negatively charged metal plate on one side of the cathode rays let out past the anode, and a positively charged metal plate on the other side. Instead of an electrometer at one end of the CRT he now had a fluorescent coating that would glow where the cathode ray hit it. When the charged metal plates were introduced he found that the cathode rays bent toward the positive plate and away from the negative plate. This showed that the charge carried by the cathode rays was negative.
From his first two experiments, J.
J. Thomson had concluded that the cathode rays themselves consisted of negatively charged particles. He wanted to know more about the physical properties of these particles, like their mass. While there was no way for him to measure the mass of these tiny particles directly, he could do an experiment that measured their mass-to-charge ratio (mass / charge) by looking at how much the cathode rays bent while traveling through varying strengths of electric and magnetic fields.What J. J. Thomson found with the mass-to-charge ratio was that the particles that make up the cathode rays must either be smaller than a single atom, or each individual particle must have a massive charge.
At the time he decided that it was the former, and named these new particles corpuscles. Later on, other scientists would back up this claim with further experiments, and J. J.
Thomson’s negatively charged corpuscles were eventually given the name electrons.
Over the course of three experiments J. J.
Thomson discovered the existence of electrons. He did this using a cathode ray tube, which is a vacuum-sealed tube with a cathode and anode on one end that create a beam of electrons travelling towards the other end of the tube. In Thomson’s first experiment, he discovered that cathode rays and the charge they deposited were intrinsically linked together. In the second experiment, he discovered that the charge in the cathode rays was negative.
He deduced that the cathode rays were made up of negatively-charged particles. Finally, in the third experiment, he found that these particles were smaller than an atom. He named these particles corpuscles, but they were eventually renamed as electrons.