Rupert Cole celebrates JJ Thomson’s birthday with a look at one of the star objects in our Collider exhibition.
Holding the delicate glass cathode-ray tube in my hands, once used by the great physicist JJ Thomson, was an incredible treat, and an experience I will never forget.
I had read lots about Thomson’s famous experiments on the electron – the first subatomic particle to be discovered – but to actually see and touch his apparatus myself, to notice the blackened glass and the tube’s minute features that are omitted in books, brought the object to life. History suddenly seemed tangible.
Using more than one cathode-ray tube in 1897 for his experiments, Thomson managed to identify a particle 1,000 times smaller than the then known smallest piece of matter: a hydrogen atom. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, where Thomson spent his scientific career, also has an original tube in its collection.
Each tube was custom-made by Thomson’s talented assistant, Ebenezer Everett, a self-taught glassblower. Everett made all of Thomson’s apparatus, and was responsible for operating it – in fact, he generally forbade Thomson from touching anything delicate on the grounds that he was “exceptionally helpless with his hands”.
The quality of Everett’s glassblowing was absolutely crucial for the experiments to work.
Cathode-rays are produced when an electric current is passed through a vacuum tube. Only when almost all the air has been removed to create a high vacuum – a state that would shatter ordinary glass vessels – can the rays travel the full length of the tube without bumping into air molecules.
Thomson was able to apply electric and magnetic fields to manipulate the rays, which eventually convinced the physics world that they were composed of tiny particles, electrons, opposed to waves in the now-rejected ether.
Find out more about Thomson and the story of the first subatomic particle here, or visit the Museum to see Thomson’s cathode-ray tube in the Collider exhibition. If you’re interested in the details of how Thomson and Everett conducted their experiments visit the Cavendish Lab’s outreach page here.