Cathode Ray

Download PDF

What is a Cathode Ray?

Bookmark added to your notes.
View Notes

A cathode ray is defined as a stream of electrons leaving the negative electrode (or cathode) in a discharge tube that contains gas at low pressure or the electrons emitted by the heated filament in certain electron tubes. X-rays or a very high temperature are created by cathode rays centred on a hard target (anticathode) on a small object in a vacuum (cathode-ray furnace).

Light Effect

When cathode rays collide with particular molecules used to cover a cathode plate, the molecules (and thus the screen) emit light. This particular effect, when coupled with the controlled deflection of a cathode ray either by a magnetic or electric field, the cathode-ray oscilloscope (rather than the cathode-ray tube CRT) is used to track the values and changes of an alternating current or voltage, as well as the image tube used in radar and television.


Like a wave, the cathode rays travel in straight lines and form a shadow when obstructed by the objects. Ernest Rutherford has demonstrated that the rays could pass through the thin metal foils, the behaviour expected of a particle. These conflicting properties have caused disruptions when trying to classify it either as a particle or wave. Also, Crookes insisted it was a particle, while Hertz maintained it as a wave.

This debate between them was resolved when an electric field was used to deflect the rays by J. J. Thomson. Since scientists knew it was difficult to deflect electromagnetic waves with an electric field, this was evidence that the beams were made up of particles. Also, these can create fluorescence, mechanical effects, and more.

Later in 1924, Louis de Broglie showed in his doctoral dissertation that, in fact, electrons are much like photons in the respect that they act both as particles and as waves in a dual manner as Albert Einstein had shown for light earlier. In 1927, Germer and Davisson used a crystal lattice to specifically illustrate the cathode rays' wave-like behaviour.


Cathode rays are so-named due to the reason they are emitted by the negative cathode or electrode in a vacuum tube. To bring the electrons into the tube, they must first be isolated from the atoms in the cathode. Crookes tubes were the first cold cathode vacuum tubes, and they worked by ionising the remaining gas atoms in the tube between the cathode and the anode using a high electrical potential of thousands of volts.

The ions that are positively charged accelerated with an electric field towards the cathode, and when they collided with it, they knocked the electrons out of its surface. These electrons were the cathode rays. Modern vacuum tubes often use thermionic emission, in which the cathode is a thin wire filament heated by a separate electric current flowing through it. The increased random heat motion of the filament knocks electrons out of the filament's surface and into the tube's evacuated space.

Since electrons hold a negative charge, they are attracted to the positive anode and repelled by the negative cathode. They also travel in straight lines via an empty tube. The high velocities of these low mass particles are accelerated by the voltage applied between the electrodes. Cathode rays are invisible, but when they reach the glass wall of an early vacuum tube, they excite the atoms and cause them to emit light, which is known as fluorescence.

Researchers observed that the objects placed inside the tube in front of the cathode could cast a shadow on the glowing wall and realized that something (a kind of ray) must be travelling from the cathode in straight lines. After reaching the anode, electrons pass through the anode wire, present to the power supply, and then return to the cathode. Hence, cathode rays carry electric current through the tube.

[Image will be uploaded soon]

(In the above figure, the cathode rays pass from the cathode at the rear part of the tube, striking the front glass and making it glow green by the fluorescence. A metal cross present in the tube casts a shadow, describing the rays travelling in straight lines.)

A small negative voltage can be applied to a metal screen of wires (otherwise known as a grid) between the anode and cathode to regulate the current in a beam of cathode rays passing through a vacuum tube. The wire's electric field deflects a few electrons, preventing them from reaching the anode. The range of current that gets through to the anode depends upon the voltage present inside the grid. Therefore, a small voltage present on the grid can be made to control a much larger voltage present on the anode.

This is the main principle, which is used in vacuum tubes for electrical signal amplification. The triode vacuum tube, which was developed between 1907 and 1914 and is still used in some applications such as radio transmitters, was the first electronic system that could amplify.

Electric fields created by additional metal plates in the tube where the voltage is applied, or magnetic fields created by wire coils, can also direct and control the high-speed beams of cathode rays (otherwise called electromagnets). These can be used in the cathode ray tubes that are found in computer monitors and televisions and also in electron microscopes.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. What are Gas Discharge Tubes?

Answer: Michael Faraday, in 1838, applied a high voltage between the two metal electrodes at either end of a glass tube that had been evacuated of air, partially, and observed a strange light arc with its beginning at the cathode (it means the negative electrode) and its end at the anode (it means, the positive electrode). And, a German physicist and glassblower Heinrich Geissler, in 1857, sucked, even more, air out with an improved pump, to a pressure of up to 10−3 atm and found that, instead of an arc, which is a glow filled the tube.

2. What are the Geissler Tubes?

Answer: The voltage applied between the two electrodes of the tubes was anywhere between a few kilovolts and 100 kV, and was created by an induction coil. These were referred to as Geissler tubes, similar to today's neon signs.

3. Give the Discovery of Electrons?

Answer: Initially, atoms were the smallest known particles and were believed to be indivisible. On the other side, what carried electric currents was a mystery. At the time of the 19th century last quarter, several historic experiments were done with the Crookes tubes to describe what cathode rays were. There exist two theories. Arthur Schuster and Crookes believed they were the particles of "radiant matter," i.e., electrically charged atoms. German scientists named Heinrich Hertz, Goldstein, and Eilhard Wiedemann believed that they were "aether waves," some new form of electromagnetic radiation, and were also separate from what carried the electric current through the tube.

4. Explain About Vacuum Tubes?

Answer:  The gas ionization (also called the cold cathode), which is a method of producing cathode rays that can be used in crookes tubes, was unreliable, the reason it depended on the residual air pressure in the tube. Over time, the air was absorbed by the tube's walls, and it stopped working.