In 1897 the British physicist Joseph John (J. J.) Thomson (1856–1940) discovered the electron in a series of experiments designed to study the nature of electric discharge in a high-vacuum cathode-ray tube, an area being investigated by numerous scientists at the time. Thomson interpreted the deflection of the rays by electrically charged plates and magnets as evidence of “bodies much smaller than atoms” that he calculated as having a very large value for the charge-to-mass ratio. Later he estimated the value of the charge itself.The experiment was called Discharged Tube experiment.
In 1904 Thomson suggested a model of the atom as a sphere of positive matter in which electrons are positioned by electrostatic forces. His efforts to estimate the number of electrons in an atom from measurements of the scattering of light, X, beta, and gamma rays initiated the research trajectory along which his student Ernest Rutherford moved. Thomson’s last important experimental program focused on determining the nature of positively charged particles. Here his techniques led to the development of the mass spectrograph. His assistant, Francis Aston, developed Thomson’s instrument further and with the improved version was able to discover isotopes—atoms of the same element with different atomic weights—in a large number of nonradioactive elements.
He was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1906, “in recognition of the great merits of his theoretical and experimental investigations on the conduction of electricity by gases.” He was knighted in 1908 and appointed to the Order of Merit in 1912. In 1914 he gave the Romanes Lecture in Oxford on “The atomic theory”. In 1918 he became Master of Trinity College,Cambridge where he remained until his death. He died on August 30, 1940 and was buried in Westminster Abbey, close to Sir Issac Newton.