I have phrased similarly another question about how physicists knew that two charges exist, positive and negative. The purpose of the question is not necessarily to educate me historically. It's just that I wish to know about classical subjects without making the atomic assumption.

I know that electrons (elementary negatively charged particles) move in contrast with protons (elementary positively charged particles) because electrons have small mass and orbit the nucleus while protons are stuck in the nucleus of atoms. Roughly at least!

Charging by induction works because of the transfer of electrons, negative charge between a conductive sphere and the ground. But it could be very well explained by the transfer of either positive or negative charge. But only the later happens.

Was there any (thought) experiment to show that only negative charges happen to move/transfer?

  • $\begingroup$ This is simply not true. In wet chemistry, we have both anions and cations. Maybe you want to restrict yourself to solids. $\endgroup$
    – user4552
    Jan 7, 2020 at 1:45

3 Answers 3


The Hall Effect shows that negative charge is moving. Source: https://www.nde-ed.org/EducationResources/CommunityCollege/MagParticle/Physics/Measuring.htm

In the Hall effect, one passes a current through a wide strip of metal exposed to a perpendicular magnetic field. If positive charges moved, we'd expect the positive charges to be travelling in the same direction as $\vec{I}$, and the magnetic force $q\vec{v}\times\vec{B}$ would be to the right. Thus, we'd expect an accumulation of positive charges on the right of the strip.

However, if negative charges move, we expect they move in the opposite direction of $\vec{I}$, and the magnetic force $q\vec{v}\times\vec{B}$ would again be to the right. This time, we expect an accumulation of negative charges on the right side of the strip.

If you actually do the experiment, you find that the right side of the strip is negatively charged, as shown in the picture. So negative charges are doing the moving!

Image Source: https://www.nde-ed.org/EducationResources/CommunityCollege/MagParticle/Physics/Measuring.htm

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Given that the image has the label "magnetic force on electrons", it might be worth mentioning explicitly that the direction of the force on putative mobile positive charges would be in the same direction. That's what makes the measurement diagnostic. $\endgroup$ Jul 8, 2016 at 20:39
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Hall experiments on aluminum can show either a positive or a negative charge carrier, depending on the experimental conditions. This has to do with the shape of the Fermi surface (see Ashcroft and Mermin). And many oxides have positive moving species to conduct. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 8, 2016 at 22:03
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ There are cases where both negative AND positive charge carriers move. One example: positive and negative ions moving inside an electrolyte as a battery is being charged and discharged. Another example from solid state physics: electrons and holes moving through an LED. $\endgroup$ Jul 9, 2016 at 3:23
  • $\begingroup$ Nicholson discovered electrolysis long before the 1879 discovery by Hall. Electrolysis showed that positive charges (nuclei) could move through fluids, but only negative charges (electrons) could flow through (metallic) solids. {before the discovery of antimatter} $\endgroup$
    – amI
    Jul 9, 2016 at 20:44

Physics's don't know that only negatively-charged particles move. We can create ion currents on demand in many environments. We do know that the current flowing in a metal wire is negatively charged particles in motion.

As for how to determine that, you do a Hall effect measurement.

The measurement works by subjecting a current in a relatively wide bar to a magnetic field perpendicular to both the current and the width of the bar and then measuring the potential difference across the width. In this era of turn-key precision voltage measurements is easy enough to do in a high school laboratory if the students can follow the underlying arguments.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Maybe I don't know a rigorous definition of "charge", but wouldn't it be more precise to talk about the movement (or lack thereof) of charged particles rather than charge itself? I ask because up until now, my view has been that when electrons move in one direction, negative "charge" is moving in the same direction and positive "charge" is moving in the opposite direction. Perhaps that's more of a macroscopic electrician view of "current flow", but I'd be curious about the precise scientific definition of "charge". $\endgroup$ Jul 9, 2016 at 17:04
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @ToddWilcox Yeah. I've been sloppy here, though it is a fairly common kind of sloppiness. Electric charge as an abstraction can be understood to be the Noetherian quantity (usually called a charge, but that would be confusing here) associated with the gauge invariance of E&M, but as a practical matter is is always associated with a (pseudo-)particle, and so its movement is associated with the motion of particles. $\endgroup$ Jul 9, 2016 at 17:42

Initially, when first glass rods were systematically being rubbed, the "charging" phenomena was observed. The electric charges were hypothesized to be positive and negative, and the pioneer (Franklin? forgot the name...) pretty much arbitrarily decided to call one positive and the other negative. Further experiments helped him deduce that two like charges repel and opposite charges attract.

At that point, nothing is said about which charge is the moving one. Original assumption was that the positive charges moved and the mathematical formalism reflected this.

Later on came the experiment which deduces which charge is the carrier of current, positive or negative. The experiment is called the Hall Effect. Essentially, you apply a magnetic field directed such that its field is perpendicular to a current flowing in a conductor. Rules of electromagnetism are such that, in this situation the negative charges pile up on one side of the conductor and the positives on the other. By arranging your setup, you can say if left side is negative then that must be the moving charge. (Or vice versa.)

This of course doesn't yet finish the picture. Atomic discoveries established that the protons are stuck in the nucleus, but the hall effect can clearly demonstrate that there are positive moving charge. What gives?

The explanation is that of an imbalance of charges, where positive charge carriers are holes, absence of electrons in a material that shuffle around. It's still the electrons that are moving, but the net motion is that of an electron hole when a material is a positive charge carrying type.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.