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International Network of Environmental Forensics Conference – Cambridge, UK – The Invention of Mass Spectrometry and J.J. Thomson

  • Jack Cochran
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I’m writing this post from St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom where I will be speaking at the International Network of Environmental Forensics Conference tomorrow on polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) analysis with parallel dual-column comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography – time-of-flight mass spectrometry (2GCxGC-TOFMS).  I could wax on and on about famous colleges and students and teachers here, including Isaac Newton, but what I was most thrilled about was being in the place where the mass spectrometer was invented by J.J. Thomson, who is also credited with discovering the electron.

I strolled down to the site of the old Cavendish Laboratory this morning, where Thomson (and others like F.W. Aston) made historic discoveries, and took a few photographs, which I share below.  Thomson foresaw the future of mass spectrometry very well, as you can tell from this quote from his 1913 book, Rays of Positive Electricity and Their Application to Chemical Analysis:

I have described at some length the application of Positive Rays to chemical analysis; one of the main reasons for writing this book was the hope that it might induce others, and especially chemists, to try this method of analysis. I feel sure that there are many problems in chemistry, which could be solved with far greater ease by this than any other method. The method is surprisingly sensitive — more so than even that of spectrum analysis, requires an infinitesimal amount of material, and does not require this to be specially purified; the technique is not difficult if appliances for producing high vacua are available.

You don’t even have to read between the lines to see his mentions of sensitivity, selectivity, and universality, things we take for granted in MS today.  I like his use of the word “appliances” also.  When I think of appliances today, it’s my refrigerator, my clothes washing machine and dryer, my coffee pot...  But come to think of it, maybe one day we’ll all have MS appliances in our homes, for personalized medicine, water analysis, indoor air analysis, etc.  I think even Thomson would be amazed at the possibilities for the future in mass spectrometry.

Cavendish Lab Bldg (Large)

JJ Thomson Plaque (Large)

Physical Chemistry (Large)

Cavendish Lab 03 (Large)