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Default April 30, 1897: J.J. Thomson Announces the Electron ... Sort Of

1897: Physicist J.J. Thomson tells a startled scientific audience that he's discovered something smaller than an atom, a particle with a minuscule mass and a negative charge.
Some in the audience at the Royal Institution of Great Britain that Friday evening later told Thomson they thought he was "pulling their legs." The atom, after all, was known to be indivisible. That's what its name meant.
As director of Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, Thomson was researching electrical currents inside cathode ray tubes. He observed that the rays are deflected by an electric field.
Researchers had been puzzled by cathode rays until Thomson theorized that the rays were in fact streams of small subatomic particles, the first known. He called them "corpuscles," the Latin for "small bodies."
Thomson figured his negatively charged corpuscles accounted for about one-thousandth of the mass of a hydrogen atom (1/1836 or 1/1837 is the accepted ratio today), matched by a positive charge elsewhere in the atom. Thomson was vague in 1897 but later theorized that the negative electrons swarmed around in a "sphere of uniform positive electrification." (Establishing the nuclear-orbital model of the atom would fall to Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr in later decades.)
In a commentary on the published version of Thomson's lecture, Irish physicist George F. FitzGerald suggested that the corpuscles were actually free electrons.
Other scientists had proposed that cathode rays were composed of particles and had attempted to establish their relative mass and charge. Thomson's great contribution was estimating that ratio and recognizing that the ratio was universal and didn't depend on the specific materials. That led him to postulate that the particles were one of the building blocks of the atom itself, even though he hadn't fully proved that at the time of his epochal lecture.
Thomson was awarded the 1906 Nobel Prize "in recognition of the great merits of his theoretical and experimental investigations on the conduction of electricity by gases." He was knighted in 1908.
His 1907 book was titled The Corpuscular Theory of Matter, and he continued to call his discovery "corpuscles" until 1913.
(Source: ChemTeam, others)

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