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.

Electroscope
Electroscope

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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Gates to FPGAs: TTL Electrical Properties

On the path to exploring complex logic, let’s discuss the electrical properties that digital logic signals are comprised of. While there are many types of digital signals, here we are talking about the more common voltage based single-ended signals and not the dual-conductor based differential signals.

Simulated "Real Life"
Single-ended Logic Signal

I think of most logic as being in one of two major divisions as far as the technology used for today’s logic: Bipolar and CMOS. Bipolar is characterized by use of (non-insulated gate) transistors and most often associated with Transistor Transistor Logic (TTL) based logic levels. As CMOS technology came of age and got faster and became able to drive higher currents it began to augment or offer an alternative to bipolar logic families. This is especially true as power supply voltages dropped and the need for low power increased. We will talk more about CMOS in the next installment.

TTL was a result of a natural progression from the earlier Resistor Transistor Logic (RTL) and Diode Transistor Logic (DTL) technologies and the standards used by early TTL became the standard for a multitude of logic families to follow.

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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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