Electron - History

History

See also: History of electromagnetism

The ancient Greeks noticed that amber attracted small objects when rubbed with fur. Along with lightning, this phenomenon is one of humanity's earliest recorded experiences with electricity. In his 1600 treatise De Magnete, the English scientist William Gilbert coined the New Latin term electricus, to refer to this property of attracting small objects after being rubbed. Both electric and electricity are derived from the Latin ēlectrum (also the root of the alloy of the same name), which came from the Greek word for amber, ήλεκτρον (ēlektron).

In the early 1700s, Francis Hauksbee and C. F. du Fay independently discovered what they believed to be two kinds of frictional electricity; one generated from rubbing glass, the other from rubbing resin. From this, Du Fay theorized that electricity consists of two electrical fluids, "vitreous" and "resinous", that are separated by friction and that neutralize each other when combined. A decade later Benjamin Franklin proposed that electricity was not from different types of electrical fluid, but the same electrical fluid under different pressures. He gave them the modern charge nomenclature of positive and negative respectively. Franklin thought of the charge carrier as being positive, but he did not correctly identify which situation was a surplus of the charge carrier, and which situation was a deficit.

Between 1838 and 1851, British natural philosopher Richard Laming developed the idea that an atom is composed of a core of matter surrounded by subatomic particles that had unit electric charges. Beginning in 1846, German physicist William Weber theorized that electricity was composed of positively and negatively charged fluids, and their interaction was governed by the inverse square law. After studying the phenomenon of electrolysis in 1874, Irish physicist George Johnstone Stoney suggested that there existed a "single definite quantity of electricity", the charge of a monovalent ion. He was able to estimate the value of this elementary charge e by means of Faraday's laws of electrolysis. However, Stoney believed these charges were permanently attached to atoms and could not be removed. In 1881, German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz argued that both positive and negative charges were divided into elementary parts, each of which "behaves like atoms of electricity".

In 1894, Stoney coined the term electron to describe these elementary charges, saying, "... an estimate was made of the actual amount of this most remarkable fundamental unit of electricity, for which I have since ventured to suggest the name electron". The word electron is a combination of the word electric(icity) and the Greek suffix "tron", meaning roughly 'the means by which it is done'. The suffix -on which is now used to designate other subatomic particles, such as a proton or neutron, is in turn derived from electron.

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