It is with good reason that the name Rutherford is closely linked with the early history of the alpha particle. He discovered them, determined their nature, and from 1909 used them to probe the structure of the atom. From 1898 to 1902 Rutherford construed alpha radiation as a type of non-particulate Röntgen radiation. On his theory of the locomotion of radioactive particles Rutherford proposed that alpha radiation consisted of negatively charged particles. During 1902 he confirmed the particulate nature of alpha radiation but discovered that these alpha particles were positively charged. Although Rutherford suspected from 1903 that these alpha particles were related somehow with helium, the proof required six long years of investigation. By mid-1908 it seemed certain that the alpha particle possessed two units of the elementary charge. Since the e/m ratio had already been determined for alpha particles, this evidence enhanced the suspected connection with helium. However, this gain and loss of charge was still construed as an ionization effect. Since as late as 1908 gaseous ionization was assumed to involve the gain or loss of a single unit of charge, Rutherford's alleged case of doubly ionized alpha particles was presumably an exception. Yet helium was known to be an inert gas and thus hardly a likely candidate for such exceptional ionization behaviour. To establish the connection, therefore, Rutherford resorted to a spectroscopic test. He collected spent alpha particles shot into a thin glass tube and gradually observed the spectrum of helium. Rutherford had thus been correct in his assumption, but a proper explanation was possible only after the confirmation of the nuclear structure of the atom.
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