done, that I ask your indulgence while I try for a few minutes, fragmentarily, to describe one or two fundamental experiments.
Cathode rays are invisible, but many substances—fortunately glass is of the number—shine with a bright phosphorescent light when placed in the path of the rays. By this means it was early discovered that cathode rays travel in straight lines which always leave the cathode making right angles with the metal surface from which they depart. It is possible, therefore, to make the cathode concave or saucer-shaped and thus bring the rays to a focus at some point in the tube. If cathode rays are thus focussed upon the blades of a very delicate paddle wheel which rotates easily upon an axis, the wheel is set revolving as if struck by a stream of moving matter.
The rays are found to possess an unusual power of penetrating matter impervious to light. They will even traverse a considerable thickness of aluminum. A comparison of the absorbing powers of different materials for cathode rays shows absorption to be roughly proportional to the density of the substance.
There is a field of magnetic force about a beam of these rays and this added to the transfer of electricity along the path gives to the cathode stream the distinguishing marks of an electric current in a wire or a procession of electrically charged bodies. If a magnet be brought near the tube the cathode stream is deflected from its direct course. This deflection by the magnet shows three things: first, cathode rays are not of the nature of light rays, the path of which a magnet is powerless to change. Second, the curved path which the stream follows again shows the stream to possess inertia. Third, the side to which the rays are deflected indicates a stream of negative electricity.
Strongly electrified bodies brought near the tube also deflect the rays. It is possible to determine the speed and the ratio of charge to the mass of the cathode particle, by measurements of the curvature of the path due to the combined magnetic and electrostatic deflections. Speeds as high as one tenth the velocity of light or 100,000 times the speed of a modern rifle bullet have thus been observed. The ratio of charge to mass comes out nearly a thousand times that found for the hydrogen atom by electrolysis. If the charge on the cathode particle is no larger than that on the hydrogen atom, which was called an atom of electricity, then the inertia or mass of these particles is only one one-thousandth part of the mass of hydrogen atoms.
The nature of cathode rays was thus determined, but at this stage it was all important to catch a known number of these missiles and measure the electric charge each carried. As the estimated size of these minute bodies is less than one ten-million-millionths of an inch, direct counting would be both slow and difficult, yet by one of the most ingenious experiments ever performed, Professor J. J. Thomson did it, indirectly.