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4.8: Electrons

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     Blackouts are caused by electrons not flowing
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) (Credit: Courtesy of Andrea Booher, FEMA; Source: in new window); License: Public Domain)

    What causes a power outage?

    In a power outage, all your electrical equipment suddenly stops working. The radio was on just a minute ago and now it is silent. What happened? Somewhere between a power generator and your electrical device was an interruption. Power stopped flowing through the wires and into your radio. That “power” turns out to be electrons that move through the wires and cause an electrical current to flow.

    Is There Anything Inside an Atom? 

    As the nineteenth century began to draw to a close, the concept of atoms was well-established.  We could determine the mass of different atoms and had some good ideas about the atomic composition of many compounds. Dalton’s atomic theory held that atoms were indivisible, so scientists did not ask questions about what was inside the atom – it was solid and could not be broken down further. But then things began to change.

    The Electron

    In 1897, English physicist J.J. Thomson (1856-1940) experimented with a device called a cathode ray tube, in which an electric current was passed through gases at low pressure. A cathode ray tube consists of a sealed glass tube fitted at both ends with metal disks called electrodes. The electrodes are then connected to a source of electricity. One electrode, called the anode, becomes positively charged while the other electrode, called the cathode, becomes negatively charged. A glowing beam (the cathode ray) travels from the cathode to the anode.

    Cathode ray tube generating beam
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) (Credit: Christopher Auyeung; Source: CK-12 Foundation; License: CC BY-NC 3.0(opens in new window))

    Earlier investigations by Sir William Crookes and others had been carried out to determine the nature of the cathode ray. Thomson modified and extended these experiments in an effort to learn about these mysterious rays. He discovered two things, which supported the hypothesis that the cathode ray consisted of a stream of particles.

    • When an object was placed between the cathode and the opposite end of the tube, it cast a shadow on the glass.
    • A cathode ray tube was constructed with a small metal rail between the two electrodes. Attached to the rail was a paddle wheel capable of rotating along the rail. Upon starting up the cathode ray tube, the wheel rotated from the cathode towards the anode. This proved that the cathode ray was made of particles which must have mass. Crooke had first observed this phenomenon and attributed it to pressure by these particles on the wheel. Thomson correctly surmised that these particles were producing heat, which caused the wheel to turn.

    In order to determine if the cathode ray consisted of charged particles, Thomson used magnets and charged plates to deflect the cathode ray. He observed that cathode rays were deflected by a magnetic field in the same manner as a wire carrying an electric current, which was known to be negatively charged. In addition, the cathode ray was deflected away from a negatively charged metal plate and towards a positively charged plate.

    Cathode ray being bent by a magnetic field
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) (Credit: Micah Sittig; Source: in new window); License: CC by 2.0(opens in new window))

    Thomson knew that opposite charges attract one another, while like charges repel one another. Together, the results of the cathode ray tube experiments showed that cathode rays are actually streams of tiny negatively charged particles moving at very high speeds. While Thomson originally called these particles corpuscles, they were later named electrons.

    Thomson conducted further experiments, which allowed him to calculate the charge-to-mass ratio \(\frac{e}{m_e}\) of the electron. In units of coulombs to grams, this value is  1.8 × 108 Coulombs/gram. He found that this value was a constant and did not depend on the gas used in the cathode ray tube or on the metal used as the electrodes. He concluded that electrons were negatively charged subatomic particles present in atoms of all elements.


    • Cathode rays are deflected by a magnetic field.
    • The rays are deflected away from a negatively charged electrical field and toward a positively charge field.
    • The charge/mass ratio for the electron is 1.8 × 108 Coulombs/gram.


    1. What subatomic particle creates electric power, and how does it do it?
    2. Whose work did Thomson repeat and revise?
    3. What experiment did Thomson perform that showed cathode rays to be particles?
    4. How did he show that these particles had a charge on them?
    5. Did the cathode ray have positive or negative charge?

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