Atomic firsts

Physics was a relatively new subject of research in the nineteenth century. As a result there was little funding, and many who wished to explore this area had minimal facilities to do so.

However, around the end of the century, new university laboratories began to open and many discoveries were made in the field of physics. The first such university laboratory for physics teaching and research was set up in the late nineteenth century following the pioneering work of Lord Kelvin in Glasgow.

Subsequently the Cavendish Laboratory was opened in 1874 at Cambridge University. This laboratory witnessed many new discoveries and nurtured some of the most talented physicists. These included J.J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford.

Born in Manchester in 1856, Joseph John Thomson (known as 'J.J.') studied at Owen's College (now Manchester University) and moved to Cambridge to study mathematics. In 1884, aged 27, he became Cavendish Professor of Physics and Head of the Cavendish Laboratory. The Laboratory had opened in 1874 under James Clerk Maxwell, who was well known for his work on electricity and magnetism.

J.J. Thomson’s most famous achievement was the discovery of the 'electron' in 1897. Some scientists had already used the term electron to describe a hypothetical unit of electricity. However J.J.’s breakthrough was proving the existence of negative particles smaller than an atom. This was a profound discovery at the time as some scientists were even sceptical of the existence of atoms. This is not surprising since they are minute. A sheet of paper is one million atoms thick. The famous scientist Rutherford described it by explaining: 'If the entire population of the world were to spend their working day doing nothing else, it would take them fifty years to count a thimble full of atoms.'

The discovery of the electron showed that the atom has an internal structure. J.J.’s experiment and subsequent theories won him the Nobel Prize for physics in 1906, establishing him as one of the most influential scientists of the twentieth century. A cathode tube used in his discovery of the electron is on display in the Science Museum. In 1924 Thomson sent a postcard explaining that he had been asked to display the apparatus used in his experiment at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley. Consequently, he wished to borrow it from the Museum.

J.J. established a very successful research school at the Cavendish Laboratory. Many of his students went on to be eminent physicists. Two notable ones were Ernest Rutherford and a blood as well an academic descendant, his own son G.P. Thomson.

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