TubeTime is back at it this year and we had the opportunity to speak with them at Bay Area Maker Faire. The group specializes in working with old tube displays and this year’s offering was spectacular in many ways. First off, the software side of things is an emulator running on an STM32 F4 Discovery board. The chips on these boards have a pair of 12-bit DACs which are driving the X and Y of the vector displays. Code to run the original ROMs was ported from existing projects, but the audio for the games was kind of a hack to get working.
This particular display is where things get really fascinating. The tube itself was originally manufactured as test equipment for television repairmen. What’s fascinating about this is that [Eric] had to rewind the deflection yokes himself to get it working again. Luckily he documented quite a bit about his initial research into this process and his experiments to remedy some distortion issues he encountered once it was working.
The tubes you’ll find in guitar amps and high-end stereos were first designed in the 30s and 40s, and when you get to really, really advanced tube technology you’d be looking at extremely small tubes made in the 70s for military applications. For 40 years, there really haven’t been many advances in tube technology. Now, at last, there’s something new.
The Nutube 6P1, as this curious invention is called, is a full triode or half of a 12ax7 you’ll find in just about every tube amp ever. Unlike the 12ax7, it consumes 2% of the power required of a normal tube, is 30% of the size of the normal tube, and lasts for 30,000 hours.
This new tube-chip thing was brought to life by Korg, makers of fine musical equipment and Noritake Co., manufacturers of vacuum fluorescent displays. There’s no word on what these tubes will be used in and there’s no data sheet. There will be further announcements this year, so don your speculation spectacles and head to the comments.
In the early days of transistors, RCA and GE were battling against silicon with ever smaller vacuum tubes. These tubes – Nuvistors, Compactrons, and some extremely small JAN triodes were some of the tiniest tubes to ever be created. [glasslinger], YouTube’s expert on DIY valves, is pretty close to beating the tiniest tubes that were ever manufactured. He’s created a miniature diode and triode that are about 1/4″ in diameter and 1″ long.
The most difficult part of making a vacuum tube is getting a perfect glass seal around the pins. For this, [glasslinger] is using very fine tungsten wire and glass beads. A bead is placed around each wire, mounted in a stand, and melted together with a torch.
A diode is simple as far as tubes go, requiring only a filament between two pins. [glasslinger] is just stringing a fine piece of wire between two pins and welding them on with a miniature spot welder. After that, it’s just an issue of melting a 1/4″ glass tube to the base of the tube, putting it under vacuum overnight, and sealing it shut.
About a decade ago I started a strange little journey in my free time that cut a path across electronics manufacturing from over the last century. One morning I decided to find out how the little glowing glass bottles we sometimes call electron tubes worked. Not knowing any better I simply picked up an old copy of the Thomas Register. For those of you generally under 40 that was our version of Google, and resembled a set of 10 yellow pages.
I started calling companies listed under “Electron Tube Manufacturers” until I got a voice on the other end. Most of the numbers would ring to the familiar “this number is no longer in service” message, but in one lucky case I found I was talking to a Mrs. Roni Elsbury, nee Ulmer of M.U. Inc. Her company is one of the only remaining firms still engaged in the production of traditional style vacuum tubes in the U.S. Ever since then I have enjoyed occasional journeys down to her facility to assist her in maintenance of the equipment, work on tooling, and help to solve little engineering challenges that keep this very artisanal process alive. It did not take too many of these trips to realize that this could be distilled down to some very basic tools and processes that could be reproduced in your average garage and that positive, all be it rudimentary results could be had with information widely available on the Internet.
Have you ever heard of a Cryotron Computer before? Of course not. Silicon killed the radio star: this is a story of competing technologies back in the day. The hand above holds the two competitors, the bulkiest one is obviously the vacuum tube, and the three-legged device is what became a household name. But to the right of that tube is another technological marvel that can also be combined into computing machines: the cryotron.
[Dudley Allen Buck] and his contributions to early computing are a tale of the possible alternate universe that could have been cryotrons instead of silicon transistors. Early on we find that the theory points to exotic superconductive materials, but we were delighted to find that in the conception and testing stages [Buck] was hacking. He made his first experimental electronic switches using dissimilar metals and dunking them in liquid helium. The devices were copper wire wrapped around a tantalum wire. The tantalum is the circuit path, the copper wire acts as the switch via a magnetic field that alters the resistance of the tantalum.
The name comes from the low temperature bath necessary to make the switches work properly. Miniaturization was the key as it always is; the example above is a relatively small example of the wire-wound version of the Cryotron, but the end goal was a process very familiar to us today. [Buck] was searching for the thin film fabrication techniques that would let him shoe horn 75,000 or more into one single computing platform. Guess who came knocking on his door during this period of his career? The NSA. The story gets even more interesting from there, but lest we rewrite the article we leave you with this: the technology may beat out silicon in the end. Currently it’s one of the cool kids on the block for those companies racing to the quantum computing finish line.
It’s hard to beat this vintage reel for learning about how vacuum tube amplifiers work. It was put together by the US Army in 1963 (if we’re reading the MCMLXIII in the title slide correctly). If you have a basic understanding of electronics you’ll appreciate at least the first half of the video, but even the most learned of radio enthusiasts will find something of interest as they make their way through the 30-minute presentation.
The instruction begins with a description of how a carbon microphone works, how that is fed to a transformer, and then into the amplifier. The first stage of the tube amp is a voltage amplifier and you’ll get a very thorough demo of the input voltage swing and how that affects the output. We really like it that the reel discusses getting data from the tube manual, but also shows how to measure cut-off and saturation voltage for yourself. From there it’s off to the races with the different tube applications used to make class A, B, and C amplifiers. This quickly moves onto a discussion of the pros and cons of each amplifier type. See for yourself after the jump.
We’ve seen homemade x-ray devices and we’ve seen people making vacuum tubes at home. We’ve never seen anyone make their own x-ray tube, though, and it’s doubtful we’ll ever see the skill and craftsmanship that went into this build again.
An x-ray tube is a simple device; a cathode emits electrons that strike a tungsten anode that emits x-rays. Most x-ray tubes, though, are relatively large with low-power mammography tubes being a few inches in diameter and about 6 inches long. In his amazing 45-minute-long video, [glasslinger] shows us how to make a miniature vacuum tube, a half-inch in diameter and only about four inches long.
For those of you who love glass lathes, tiny handheld spot welders and induction heaters, but don’t want your workshop bathed in x-rays, [glasslinger] has also built a few other vacuum tubes, including a winking cat Nixie tube. This alternate cat’s eye tube was actually sealed with JB Weld, an interesting technique if you’d ever like to make a real home made tube amp.