History Of The Diode

The history of the diode is a fun one as it’s rife with accidental discoveries, sometimes having to wait decades for a use for what was found. Two examples of that are our first two topics: thermionic emission and semiconductor diodes. So let’s dive in.

Vacuum Tubes/Thermionic Diodes

Our first accidental discovery was of thermionic emission, which many years later lead to the vacuum tube. Thermionic emission is basically heating a metal, or a coated metal, causing the emission of electrons from its surface.


In 1873 Frederick Guthrie had charged his electroscope positively and then brought a piece of white-hot metal near the electroscope’s terminal. The white-hot metal emitted electrons to the terminal, which of course neutralized the electroscope’s positive charge, causing the leafs to come together. A negatively charged electroscope can’t be discharged this way though, since the hot metal emits electrons only, i.e. negative charge. Thus the direction of electron flow was one-way and the earliest diode was born.

Thomas Edison independently discovered this effect in 1880 when trying to work out why the carbon-filaments in his light bulbs were often burning out at their positive-connected ends. In exploring the problem, he created a special evacuated bulb wherein he had a piece of metal connected to the positive end of the circuit and held near the filament. He found that an invisible current flowed from the filament to the metal. For this reason, thermionic emission is sometimes referred to as the Edison effect.

Thermionic diode
Thermionic diode. By Svjo [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
But it took until 1904 for the first practical use of the effect to appear. John Ambrose Fleming had actually consulted for the Edison Electric Light Company from 1881-1891 but was now working for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company. In 1901 the company demonstrated the first radio transmission across the Atlantic, the letter “S” in the form or three dots in Morse code. But there was so much difficulty in telling the received signal apart from the background noise, that the result was disputed (and still is). This made Fleming realize that a more sensitive detector than the coherer they’d been using was needed. And so in 1904 he tried an Edison effect bulb. It worked well, rectifying the high frequency oscillations and passing the signals on to a galvanometer. He filed for a patent and the Fleming valve, the two element vacuum tube or thermionic diode, came into being, heralding decades of technological developments in many subsequent types of vacuum tubes.

Vacuum tubes began to be replaced in power supplies in the 1940s by selenium diodes and in the 1960s by semiconductor diodes but are still used today in high power applications. There’s also been a resurgence in their use by audiophiles and recording studios. But that’s only the start of our history.

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Alfred P. Morgan: A Generation’s Radio Hacker

I was surfing the web looking for interesting projects the other day when I ran into [SkyKing’s] exquisite transistor demodulator radio builds. He mentioned that they were “Alfred P. Morgan-style” and that brought back a flood of memories about a man who introduced a whole generation to electronics and radio.

[Morgan] was born in 1889 and in the early part of the twentieth century, he was excited to build and fly an airplane. Apparently, there wasn’t a successful flight. However, he eventually succeeded and wrote his first book: “How to Build a 20-foot Bi-Plane Glider.” In 1910, he and a partner formed the Adams Morgan company to distribute radio construction kits. We probably wouldn’t remember [Morgan] for his airplanes, but we do recognize him for his work with radio.

By 1913, he published a book “The Boy Electrician” which covered the fundamentals of electricity and magnetism (at a time when these subjects were far more mysterious than they are today). [Morgan] predicted the hacker in the preface to the 1947 edition. After describing how a boy was frustrated that his model train automated to the point that he had nothing actually to do, [Morgan] observed:

The prime instinct of almost any boy at play is to make and to create. He will make things of such materials as he has at hand, and use the whole force of dream and fancy to create something out of nothing.

Of course, we know this applies to girls too, but [Morgan] wrote this in 1913, so you have to fill in the blanks. I think we can all identify with that sentiment, though.

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Video: The Lowly Diode — Umpteen Functions with Only Two Pins

The lowly diode, a device with only two leads, can nonetheless do many things. Diodes can detect, rectify, suppress, emit light, detect light, change capacitance, emit microwaves and more. This wide range of use means diodes are included in almost every design and it’s well worth learning more about the inner workings of all kinds of diodes.

My introduction to diodes started like many of my generation with a homemade crystal radio set. My first diode was a piece of pencil graphite in contact with an old fashion safety razor with the joint of the two dissimilar materials — graphite and steel — creating the diode. In this configuration the diode is said to be “detecting” which is the act of turning a weak radio signal into a weak audio signal. At least in my home town of Marion Indiana, one radio station was stronger than the other so that I didn’t have to listen to two stations at once.

Germanium Glass Diode
The venerable 1N34A Germanium Signal Diode.

I eventually learned about “real” diodes and the 1N34A Germanium diode was my “goto” diode into my teens. Nowadays looking into a modern version of the 1N34A you can still see the semblance of the old “cat’s whisker” by looking carefully into the diode.

A quick and somewhat inaccurate semblance of the way a diode works can be demonstrated with marbles and jacks representing negative electrons and positive “holes”. Holes are basically an atom missing an electron due to the combination of elements, a process known as doping. Join me after the break for the explanation.

Demonstrating a PN Junction with marbles and Jacks.
Demonstrating a PN Junction with marbles and Jacks.

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Accidental LED fabrication

[Grenadier] had a piece of silicon carbide sitting around that he planned to use when making a primitive diode called a Cat’sWhisker Diode. While probing he noticed that one of the crystals threw off a bit of light. He popped it off and used JB Weld to attach it to a brass plate. The peculiar thing is that it generates light when power is run through it both forward and reverse biased. So what’s going on here? According to an informed discussion on the phenomenon there’s actually a pair of diodes in series but with their polarity reversed.