1932 Manchester, England

‘Discovery of neutrons – elementary particles devoid of any electric charge’

In contrast with the Helium nuclei (alpha rays) which are charged, and therefore repelled by the electrical forces present in the nuclei of heavy atoms, the neutron is capable of penetrating and splitting the nuclei of even the heaviest elements, creating the possibility of the fission of 235uranium

Assistant to ERNEST RUTHERFORD, Chadwick’s earlier work involved the showering of elements with alpha particles. The picture that gradually emerged was one of a nucleus that contained a very heavy particle with a positive electric charge. This particle was christened the proton, the hydrogen building block envisaged by WILLIAM PROUT.
A spin-off of this was the deduction that the nucleus of the hydrogen atom, the positively charged proton with an atomic weight of one, was present in larger quantities in the nucleus of every other atom.

Rutherford and Geiger had shown that a helium atom and an alpha particle were the same thing, apart from the positive electric charge carried by the alpha particle.

A helium atom seemed to consist of a nucleus of a pair of protons circled by two electrons. However, a helium nucleus seemed to weigh as much as four protons. The mass of the known components of an atom did not add-up. Protons seemed to account for around half of the weight and were matched in number by an equal amount of negatively charged electrons to counter their positive charge. But the weight of an electron was one-thousandth that of a proton, so approximately half of the atomic weight of the element was unaccounted for.
Chadwick solved the conundrum in 1932 when he re-interpreted the results of an experiment carried out by IRENE and FREDERIC JULIOT-CURIE (Irene was the daughter of PIERRE and MARIE CURIE).
The couple had found in 1932 that when beryllium was showered with alpha particles, the resultant radiation could force protons out of substances containing hydrogen. Chadwick suggested that neutrally charged sub-atomic units, which he named neutrons, with the same weight as protons, could force this reaction and therefore were what made up the radiation that the Curies called gamma rays. Rutherford had hinted at the existence of such a particle in 1920.

The explanation was widely accepted and the riddle of `atomic weight’ had been solved: a similar number of neutrons to protons in the nucleus of an element would make up the remaining fifty per cent of the previously ‘missing’ mass.

photo portrait of FREDERICK SODDY ©


The discovery of the neutron made sense of the observation that many elements come in a variety of forms, each with differing radioactive properties such as decay rate. Each form consisted of atoms with a different mass. Frederick Soddy christened these variants ‘isotopes’ in 1911. The idea that each element might be a mixture of atoms of different atomic weights explained why the atomic weights of a handful of elements were not simple multiples of the atomic weight of hydrogen, the most notorious example being chlorine whose atomic weight was 35.5 times that of hydrogen. Most of the variant forms of each element turned out to be radioactively unstable. An element such as chlorine, with more than one stable isotope, is rare.

The various isotopes of an element were merely atoms with the same number of protons in their nucleus but with a different number of neutrons.

artistic representation of atomic disintegration

Thus every atom was composed of electrons, protons and neutrons. The protons and neutrons clung together in a central clump – the atomic nucleus – while the electrons circled in a distant haze. The neutrons were responsible for increasing the weight of the elements without adding any electrical charge. Two protons and two neutrons made a helium nucleus; eight protons and eight neutrons an oxygen nucleus; 26 protons and 30 neutrons an iron nucleus; 79 protons and 118 neutrons a gold; and 92 protons and 146 neutrons a nucleus of uranium. When a radioactive nucleus expelled an alpha particle, it lost two neutrons and two protons and consequently became a nucleus of an element two places lower in the periodic table. When a radioactive nucleus emitted a beta particle, however, a neutron changed into a proton, transforming the nucleus into that of an element one place higher in the periodic table.

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1909 – USA

‘The charge on the electron’

Millikan measured the charge on the electron.



His experiment showed that the electron is the fundamental unit of electricity; that is, electricity is the flow of electrons. From the experiment Millikan calculated the basic charge on an electron to be 1.6 × 10-19 coulomb. This charge cannot be subdivided – by convention this charge is called unit negative, -1, charge.

Millikan also determined that the electron has only about 1/1837 the mass of a proton, or 9.1 × 10-31 kilogram.

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FRANCIS ASTON (1877-1945)

1922 – England

‘At the end of the First War, the assistant of JJ THOMSON developed the mass spectrograph for measuring the comparative weights of atoms’

Early Mass Spectrometer

Early Mass Spectrometer

Photo portrait of FRANCIS ASTON ©


Whereas Thomson had used a discharge tube to measure the deflection of atomic particles passing through a hole in the anode, Aston refined the instrument by placing photographic plates in the path of the beams emerging through a hole in the cathode. These rays proved to be much harder to deflect from their course, implying they were made of particles thousands of times heavier than electrons, with masses close to those of atoms. These particles were deflected in opposite directions to negative cathode rays, indicating that they carried a positive charge.

Hence hurtling in one direction down a discharge tube were cathode ray electrons occasionally colliding with the atoms of the rarefied gas filling the tube. Drifting in the other direction – much more sluggishly because of their larger mass – were positive gas atoms, or ‘ions’, stripped of an electron or two in the collisions.

Once perfected, this mass spectrograph offered a means of deciding the mass of these atoms to an accuracy of 1 part in 100,000. This was enough to distinguish the existence of different isotopes and to confirm that the ‘rule of thumb’ – that masses of atoms were roughly whole number multiples of the mass of hydrogen – was in actuality accurate.
What it had confirmed was that the fundamental building block had the same mass as the proton, or hydrogen nucleus. When the mass spectrograph was first devised, the proton was the only particle with the mass of a proton, as the neutron was yet to be described by JAMES CHADWICK.

When comparisons of atomic mass were made, the oxygen atom was chosen as the standard with a mass of 16.
Today carbon is used as the atomic mass standard with a weight of 12.

Using this standard it was discovered that although the ratios of atomic masses were indistinguishable from whole numbers, helium being 4, oxygen 16, the atomic mass of hydrogen was anomalously high, being 1.008. The conclusion as to why this should be so had been suggested in the nineteenth century but before Einstein had found little support. After the famous paper of 1905, however, it was not unreasonable to suggest that when hydrogen atoms came together or coalesced to form other elements, mass was lost as energy.

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1831 – England

‘A changing magnetic field around a conductor produces an electric current in the conductor. The size of the voltage is proportional to the rate of change of the magnetic field’

This phenomenon is called ‘electromagnetic induction’ and the current produced ‘induced current’. Induction is the basis of the electric generator and motor.

Faraday developed HANS CHRISTIAN OERSTED’s 1820 discovery that electric current could deflect a compass needle. In his experiment Faraday wrapped two coils of insulated wire around opposite sides of an iron ring. One coil was connected to a battery, the other to a wire under which lay a magnetic compass needle. He anticipated that if he passed a current through the first wire it would establish a field in the ring that would induce a current in the second wire. He observed no effect when the current was steady but when he turned the current on and off he noticed the needle moving. He surmised that whenever the current in the first coil changed, current was induced in the second. To test this concept he slipped a magnet in and out of a coil of wire. While the magnet was moving the compass needle registered a current, as he pushed it in it moved one way, as he pulled it out the needle moved in the opposite direction. This was the first production of electricity by non-chemical means.

In 1831, by rotating a copper disc between the poles of a magnet, Faraday was able to produce a steady electric current. This was the world’s first dynamo.

NEWTON, with his concept of gravity, had introduced the idea of an invisible force that exerted its effect through empty space, but the idea of ‘action-at-a-distance’ was rejected by an increasing number of scientists in the early nineteenth century. By 1830, THOMAS YOUNG and AUGUSTIN FRESNEL had shown that light did not travel as particles, as Newton had said, but as waves or vibrations. But if this was so, what was vibrating? To answer this, scientists came up with the idea of a weightless matter, or ‘aether’.

Faraday had rejected the concept of electricity as a ‘fluid’ and instead visualised its ‘fields’ with lines of force at their edges – the lines of force demonstrated by the pattern of iron fillings around a magnet. This meant that action at a distance simply did not happen, but things moved only when they encountered these lines of force. He believed that magnetism was also induced by fields of force and that it could interrelate with electricity because the respective fields cut across each other. Proving this to be true by producing an electric current via magnetism, Faraday had demonstrated electromagnetic induction.

When Faraday was discovering electromagnetic induction he did so in the guise of a natural philosopher. Physics, as a branch of science, was yet to be given a name.

The Russian physicist HEINRICH LENZ (1804- 65) extended Faraday’s work when in 1833 he suggested that ‘the changing magnetic field surrounding a conductor gives rise to an electric current whose own magnetic field tends to oppose it.’ This is now known as Lenz’s law. This law is in fact LE CHATELIER‘s principle when applied to the interactions of currents and magnetic fields.


Fluctuating Electromagnetic Fields and EM Waves

It took a Scottish mathematician by the name of JAMES CLERK MAXWELL to provide a mathematical interpretation of Faraday’s work on electromagnetism.

Describing the complex interplay of electric and magnetic fields, he was able to conclude mathematically that electromagnetic waves move at the speed of light and that light is just one form of electromagnetic wave.
This led to the understanding of light and radiant heat as moving variations in electromagnetic fields. These moving fields have become known collectively as radiation.

Faraday continued to investigate the idea that the natural forces of electricity, magnetism, light and even gravity are somehow ‘united’, and to develop the idea of fields of force. He focused on how light and gravity relate to electromagnetism.
After experimenting with many transparent substances, he tried a piece of heavy lead glass which led to the discovery of the ‘Faraday Effect’ in 1845 and proved that polarised light may be affected by a magnet. This opened the way for enquiries into the complete spectrum of electromagnetic radiation.

In 1888 the German physicist HEINRICH HERTZ confirmed the existence of electromagnetic waves – in this case radio waves – traveling at the speed of light.

The unit of capacitance, farad (F) is named in honour of Faraday.

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CARL GAUSS (1777-1855)

1832 – Germany

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An electric field may be pictured by drawing lines of force. The field is stronger where these lines crowd together, weaker where they are far apart. Electrical flux is a measure of the number of electric field lines passing through an area.

‘The electrical flux through a closed surface is proportional to the sum of the electric charges within the surface’


Gauss’ law describes the relationship between electric charge and electric field. It is an elegant restatement of COULOMB‘s law.


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1785 – France

‘The force of attraction or repulsion between two charges is directly proportional to the product of the two charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them’

The region around a charged object where it exerts a force is called its electric field. Another charged object placed in this field will have a force exerted on it. Coulomb’s rule is used to calculate this force.

Coulomb, a French physicist, made a detailed study of electrical attractions and repulsions between various charged bodies and concluded that electrical forces follow the same type of law as gravitation. Coulomb found a similar principle linking the relationship of magnetic forces. He believed electricity and magnetism, however, to be two separate ‘fluids’.
It was left to HANS CHRISTIAN OERSTED, ANDRE-MARIE AMPERE and MICHAEL FARADAY to enunciate the phenomenon of electromagnetism.

The SI unit of electric charge, coulomb (C), one unit of which is shifted when a current of one ampere flows for one second, is named in his honour.

He also articulated Coulomb’s rule of friction, which outlines a proportional relationship between friction and pressure.

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1827 – France

‘Two current-carrying wires attract each other if their currents are in the same direction, but repel each other if their currents are opposite.
The force of attraction or repulsion (magnetic force) is directly proportional to the product of the strengths of the currents and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them’

portrait of ANDRE AMPERE ©


Another addition to the succession of ‘inverse-square’ laws begun with NEWTON’s law of universal gravitation.
Ampere had noted that two magnets could affect each other and wondered, given the similarities between electricity and magnetism, what effect two currents would have upon each other. Beginning with electricity run in two parallel wires, he observed that if the currents ran in the same direction, the wires were attracted to each other and if they ran in opposite directions they were repelled.

He experimented with other shapes of wires and generalised that the magnetic effect produced by passing a current in an electric wire is the result of the circular motion of that current. The effect is increased when the wire is coiled. When a bar of soft iron is placed in the coil it becomes a magnet. This is the solenoid, used in devices where mechanical motion is required.

Ampere exploited OERSTED’s work, devising a galvanometer which measured electric current flow via the degree of deflection upon its magnetic needle.

He attempted to interpret all his results mathematically in a bid to find an encompassing explanation for what later became referred to as electromagnetism (Ampere had at that time christened it electrodynamics), resulting in his 1827 definition.

Ampere’s name is commemorated in the SI unit of electric current, the ampere.

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1752 – The New World

‘If you would not be forgotten when you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing about’

Curious about how just about everything works, from governments to lightning rods, Franklin’s legacy, in addition to the many inventions such as lightning conductors, bifocal lenses and street lamps, was one of learning. He established one of the first public libraries as well as one of the first universities in America, Pennsylvania. He established the Democratic Party. Franklin was one of the five signatories of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776 and was a later participant in the drafting of the American Constitution.

‘Benjamin Franklin’s choice for the signs of electric charges leads to electric current being positive, even though the charge carriers themselves are negative — thereby cursing electrical engineers with confusing minus signs ever since.
The sign of the charge carriers could not be determined with the technology of Franklin’s time, so this isn’t his fault. It’s just bad luck.’

Franklin was a pioneer in understanding the properties and potential of electricity. He undertook studies involving electric charge and introduced the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ in explaining the way substances could be attracted to or repelled by each other according to the nature of their charge. He believed these charges ultimately cancelled each other out so that if something lost electrical charge, another substance would instantly gain the same amount.

His work on electricity climaxed with his kite flying experiment of 1752. In order to prove lightning to be a form of electricity, Franklin launched a kite into a thunderstorm on a long piece of conducting string. Tying the string to a capacitor, which became charged when struck by lightning, vindicated his theories.

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