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J. J. Thomson's Cathode Ray Tube Experiments

14th Dec 2019 @ 10 min read

Physical Chemistry

Sir Joseph John Thomson was a British physicist and Nobel Laureate. He was well-known for the discovery of the electron. In 1897, he showed that cathode rays were composed of very small negatively charged particles. These particles later were named electrons. The apparatus of his experiment is called the cathode-ray tube (CRT).

J. J. Thomson
A portrait of J. J. Thomson (1856 – 1940)

J. J. Thomson was not the only one working on cathode rays, but several other players like Julius Plücker, Johann Wilhelm Hittorf, William Crookes, Philipp Lenard had contributed or were busy studying it. However, Thomson's contributions remain more significant than the rest. His experimental results were further investigated by Rutherford and Bohr, which further provided important insights into the atomic world.

Cathode ray and cathode-ray tube

Before directly jumping Thomson's findings, let us understand some basic knowledge on cathode rays and the cathode-ray tube.

What are cathode rays? Cathode rays are streams of electrons emitted from the cathode (the electrode connected to the negative terminal of a battery). These rays travel in straight lines and can be deflected by electric and magnetic field.

The cathode-ray tube (CRT) is a hollow glass tube. The air in the tube is pumped out to create a vacuum.

Cathode ray tube
Cathode-ray tube

The CRT consists of the following parts:

  1. Electron emitter (or electron gun): The electron gun comprises of primarily heater and cathode. It emits the sharp electron beam, cathode rays. In modern CRTs, the electron beam is generated by thermionic emission—using a heating filament—as shown in the above diagram. However, cold-cathode emission mechanism was used in Thomson's experiments.
  2. Focusing and accelerating system: It is made up of a series of anodes. It will narrow the beam and increase its kinetic energy.
  3. Deflection system: It controls the direction of the electron beam. This is achieved by an external electric and magnetic field. Cathode rays bend as they interact with these fields.
  4. Phosphorescent coating: It is the final part of the CRT, where the rays strike to create a glow.

Thomson's experiments

Back in those days, physicists were unclear whether cathode rays were immaterial like light or were material. Many diverse opinions were held on these rays. According to some, the rays are due to some process in the aether. The immaterial nature and the aetherial hypothesis of cathode rays were proved wrong by J. J. Thomson. He concluded that the rays were comprised of particles. His entire works can be divided into three different experiments. In the first, the magnetic effect on cathode rays was studied while in the second, the rays were deflected by an electric field. In the final experiment, he succeeded in measuring mass to charge ratio.

Experiment 1: Magnetic deflection

The experiment apparatus consisted of two metal cylinders. The cylinders were coaxial placed and insulated from each other. The outer cylinder was grounded while inner was attached to an electrometer to detect any electric current as shown in the figure below. Both cylinders had holes or slits. When a high potential difference was applied between the cathode (A in the diagram) and anode (B in the diagram), cathode rays, which were produced in the left tube, emitted from the cathode and entered into the main bell jar. The rays would not enter the cylinders unless deflected by a magnetic field.

Cathode-ray tube experiment 1 by J. J. Thomson
Diagram for experiment 1

He traced the path of the rays using the fluorescence on a squared screen in the jar. When the rays were bent by a magnetic field, they infiltrate the cylinders through the slits. And the presence of negatively charge was detected in the electrometer. If these rays were further bent, they overshot the slits and the electrometer failed to show any readings. “Thus this experiment shows that however we twist and deflect the cathode rays by magnetic forces, the negative electrification follows the same path as the rays and that this negative electrification is indissolubly connected with the cathode rays,” Thomson quoted.

Moreover, he repeated the experiment with different materials and gases and found the deflection of the rays was the same irrespective of materials and gases used.


He arrived at the two main points after this experiment.

  1. Cathode rays were deflected by a magnetic field in the same manner as if they were made up of negatively charged particles.
  2. The rays were independent of the material of electrodes and the gas in the jar.

Experiment 2: Electric deflection

The first experiment did demonstrate the behaviour of cathode rays as negatively charged particles under a magnetic field. This statement became deficient when cathode rays failed to deflect in an electric field. It was observed by Hertz well before Thomson. This resulted in a dilemma whether cathode rays are negatively charged particles or not. Thomson decided to investigate further through another experiment.

Cathode-ray tube experiment 2 by J. J. Thomson
Diagram for experiment 2

Thomson constructed a modified Crookes tube as depicted in the above figure. When a high potential difference was applied between the cathode and the anode, cathode rays were generated at the cathode (C in the diagram). As these rays passed through the anode (A in the diagram) and later through slit B, which was grounded, the rays were sharpened. This narrow beam propagated through aluminium plates (D and E) and finally struck the phosphorescent screen to produce a bright patch. The screen was scaled, so the deflection of the beam could be measured.

When Hertz had applied an electric field between the plates, he noticed no deflection of the beam. Hence, he concluded that cathode rays are not affected by an electric field.

After Hertz, when Thomson performed the same experiment, he also found the similar results. He repeated the same experiment under much lower pressure than the previous. This time the beam was deflected by an electric field. When the upper plate was attached to the positive terminal of the battery and the lower plate to the negative terminal, the beam deflected upwards. If the polarity of the plates was reversed, the beam would deflect downwards.

Cathode rays deflect in the opposite direction
Cathode rays deflect in the downwards direction when the polarity was reversed.

Finally, he succeeded in proving the beam are nothing but negatively charged particles.


He concluded:

As the cathode rays carry a charge of negative electricity, are deflected by an electrostatic force as if they were negatively electrified and are acted on by a magnetic force in just the way in which this force would act on a negatively electrified body moving along the path of these rays, I can see no escape from the conclusion that they are charges of negative electricity carried by particles of matter.

Note: One question, which may haunt the readers, is that why the beam deflected when the vacuum in the tube was increased. The high potential difference between the electrodes ionized the residual gas molecules into free electrons and ions, aka space charge. These free electrons and ions electrically screened the external electric field in the case of Hertz. Thus, it resulted in a damp electric field, and the beam remained unaffected by the electric field. But in the case of Thomson due to the higher vacuum, the density of the space charge was very less. And they did not significantly hinder the electric field.

Experiment 3: Mass-to-charge (e/m) ratio

After demonstrating the electrostatic properties of cathode rays, Thomson was still curious about these particles. He pondered whether what were these particles, were they atoms or molecules, or some unknown entities yet to discover. To find answers to such questions, he performed the third experiment. In this experiment, he measured the mass-to-charge ratio of particles.

Cathode-ray tube experiment 3by J. J. Thomson
Diagram for experiment 3

The experimental apparatus for this experiment was the same as the previous one. Additionally, he applied a magnetic field by placing the poles of an electromagnet around the tube as shown in the above figure.

The magnetic field was applied such that it was perpendicular to both the electric field and cathode rays. This is depicted in the figure below.

The magnetic field was perpendicular to both cathode rays and electric field.
The magnetic field was perpendicular to both the electric field and cathode rays.

Initially, he applied the only electric field, which deflected the beam to a particular direction. This electric deflection was measured by him. And then the magnetic field was varied until the beam returned to the original path i.e. it remained undeflected. At this condition, the magnetic force and the electric force had cancelled out each other. They were equal in magnitude but opposite in direction.

He calculated the mass-to-charge ratio (me) using the below expression.

mass-to-charge ratio by J. J. Thomson

Here, E and H are the electric field strength and the magnetic field strength, l is the length of the plates, and θ is the deflection when only the electric field is applied. All these parameters were known.

Proof of m/e


  1. D be the plate connected to the positive terminal of a battery and E connected to the negative terminal.
  2. FE be the force exerted by the electric field.
  3. FH be the force exerted by the magnetic field.
  4. s be the vertical displacement of the beam at the end of the plates.
  5. l be the length of a plate.
  6. θ be the deflection in the electric field.
  7. v be the constant velocity of the beam when it enters the electric field.
  8. O be the origin.
  9. T be the time spent by cathode rays in the electric field.

This notation is represented in the below figure.

Proof of the mass-to-charge ratio
Electric and magnetic field between plate D and E

When the electric force and the magnetic force cancel out each other, the rays are undeflected. Thus, the net force on the rays is zero.

Net force on the beam is zero

We know FE = eE and FH = −evH. The negative sign shows the forces are in the opposite direction.

Substituting the values of the forces Velocity of the cathode rays

The displacement from the kinematic formulas is

Kinematic formula

In the x-direction, the initial velocity is v and the acceleration is zero.

The position of electron in the x-direction

Substituting the value of v in the above equation,

The position of the beam in the x-direction

When t = T, x = l.

the length of a plate

In the y-direction, the initial velocity is zero, but the beam accelerates as it advances in the electric field.

the position of the beam in the y-direction

Acceleration is force divided mass.

Acceleration of the beam

Substituting the value of a,

The vertical displacement of the rays

When t = T, y = s.

The displacement of the beam at the end of the plates

Eliminating T,

The displacement of the beam in terms of the length of the plates Thus, the mass-to-charge ratio is as follows: The mass-to-charge ratio in terms of l and s

For smaller values of θ, Angle of deflection.


mass-to-charge ratio in terms of θ

The value of the ratio reported by Thomson in his paper is (1.29 ± 0.17) × 10−7.

The reciprocal of me gives the charge-to-mass ratio (em). The value of em recommended by CODATA is 1.758 820 010 76(53) × 1011 C kg−1.

Thomson also noted that his calculated value of me was independent of the gas in the discharge tube and the metal used of the cathode. This also gave an inkling that particles were an integral part of atoms.

He also noted that the value of me was around 1000 times smaller than that the value of hydrogen ions. The value of me of hydrogen ions estimated at that time was around 10−4. It implied that the mass of the particles were much smaller than that of hydrogen ions or were heavily charged. Lenard had determined that the range, which is closely associated to the mean free path for collisions, of cathode rays; it was 0.5 cm. On the other hand, the mean free path of air molecules was 10−5 cm, which is very small in comparison with the range of cathode rays. Therefore, he argued the size of these particles must be much smaller than the molecules of air.


Thomson named these particles as corpuscles, later they were renamed as electrons. He concluded that the corpuscles were smaller than the size of the atoms and were an integral part of an atom.

Based on these experimental results Thomson also proposed his plum pudding model. He was honoured the Nobel Prize in Physics.

J. J. Thomson with its cathode-ray tube
J. J. Thomson with his cathode-ray tube

Thomson's hypotheses

Thomson presented three hypotheses from his experiments.

  1. Cathode rays are made up of negatively charged particles called corpuscles.
  2. The atom is comprised of these corpuscles.
  3. These corpuscles are the only integral part of an atom.

The third hypothesis was proven wrong later when his own student Rutherford proposed the presence of the positively charged nucleus in an atom.

Associated articles

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Atomic Structure J J Thomson Cathode Rays

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