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JJ Thomson Science lecturers who traveled from town to town in the middle nineteenth century delighted audiences by showing them the ancestor of the neon sign They took a glass tube with wires embedded in opposite ends put a high voltage across pumped out most of the air and the interior of the tube would glow in lovely patterns In 1859 a German physicist sucked out still more air with an improved pump and saw that where this light from the cathode reached the glass it produced a fluorescent glow Evidently the cathode emitted some kind of ray that was illuminating the glass What could these rays be One possibility was that they were waves traveling in a hypothetical invisible fluid called the ether similar to the quintessence of Aristotle At that time many physicists thought that this ether was needed to carry light waves through apparently empty space Maybe cathode rays were similar to light waves Another possibility was that cathode rays were some kind of material particle Yet many physicists including JJ Thomson thought that all material particles themselves might be some kind of structure built out of ether so these views were not so far apart Experiments were needed to resolve the uncertainties When physicists moved a magnet near the glass they found they could push the rays about Nevertheless when the German physicist Heinrich Hertz passed the rays through an electric field created by metal plates inside a cathode ray tube the rays were not deflected in the way that would be expected of electrically charged particles Hertz and his student Philipp Lenard also placed a thin metal foil in the path of the rays and saw that the glass still glowed as though the rays slipped through the foil Did that not prove that cathode rays were some kind of waves Other experiments cast doubt on the idea that these
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