Retrotechtacular: The Transistor (1953 Film)

If we cast our minds back to the early years of the transistor, the year that is always quoted is 1947, during which a Bell Labs team developed the first practical germanium point-contact transistor. They would go on to be granted the Nobel Prize for their work in 1956, but the universal adoption of their invention was not an instantaneous process. Instead there would be a gradual change from vacuum to solid state that would span the 1950s and the 1960s, and even in the 1970s you might still have found mainstream devices on sale containing vacuum tubes.

First point contact transistor via kasap3

To speed up this process, Bell Labs made every effort to publicize their invention. Thus we come to our subject today, their 1953 publicity film The Transistor, in which the electronics industry of the era is described and how each part of it might revolutionize by the transistor is laid out.

We start with a look at a selection of electronic components, among which are a few transistors. The point contact device is already described as superceded by the junction transistor, but as well as those two we are shown a phototransistor and a junction tetrode, a now-obsolete design that had two base connections.

Unexpectedly we don’t dive straight into the world of transistors, but take a look back at the earlier years of the century to the development of vacuum electronics. We’re taken through the early development  and operation of vacuum tubes, then their use in long-distance radio communications, through the advent of electronics in mass entertainment, and finally into the world of radar and microwave links. Only then do we return to the transistor, with a posed shot of [John Bardeen], [William Shockley], and [Walter Brattain] hard at work in a lab. The merits of the transistor as opposed to the tube are then set out, though we can’t help wondering whether they have confused a milliwatt and a microwatt when they describe the transistor as requiring only a millionth of a watt to operate.

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Dumpster Dive Speaker Results In Tube Amplifier

[Michael Wiebusch] found the leftovers of a wrecked vintage tube radio in a pile of electronics junk. Unfortunately, he could not recover any vacuum tubes in it. And to his dismay, it didn’t even have the output transformer, which he figured would have been useful in a guitar amplifier project. The output transformer is not easy to come by nowadays, so he was hoping to at least score that item for his future build. All he could dig out from his dumpster find was a pair of speakers and he ended up building nice Output-Transformer-Less Tube Guitar Amplifier around them.

Valve output stages are generally high-impedance which means they cannot be directly interfaced to low impedance speakers. An impedance matching output transformer is thus used to interface the two. Back in the day when valves were still the mainstay of audio electronics, many cheap amplifier designs would skimp on the output transformer to save cost, and instead use high impedance speakers connected directly to the amplifier output.

[Michael] found a nice reference design of an OTL amplifier for a 620 ohm single speaker. He decided to use the same design but because these speakers were about 300 ohm each, he would have to wire his two speakers in series. At this point, he decided to make his build useful as a proper guitar amplifier by adding a preamplifier stage replicated from another design that he came across. A regular halogen lamp 12V transformer takes care of the heater power supply for all the tubes, and a second, smaller 12V transformer is wired backwards to provide the 300V needed for the plate supply.

The final result is pretty satisfactory, considering that it all started with just a pair of junked speakers. Check out the result in the video after the break.

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Vintage Tube Radio Restorations

[J.B. Langston] has some vintage late-40’s/early-50’s tube radios that he wanted to repair – a Motorola All-American 5 AM radio, an Air Castle AM/FM radio and a Sears Silvertone AM/FM radio. He goes over, one by one, the three vintage radios, the problems they had, and how he got them back into working order. No finding a replacement microchip here, this was all about replacing capacitors and finding vacuum tubes!

In contrast to most modern builds we see on Hackaday, vintage radios are fairly simple – mainly turret-board builds with a transformer, resistors, capacitors, coil and tubes. The main issues in any vintage electronic repair is checking the capacitors because old wax paper and electrolytic capacitors can degrade and will need replacing. When repairing the All-American 5, [J.B. Langston] had an issue with the transformer, and he goes over how he fixed what’s called silver mica disease in it. While many parts were replaced with modern equivalents, only a selenium solid-state rectifier in one of them was replaced by a different part – a silicon diode and a high-wattage series resistor.

Looking at the inside of some of these radios, it’s surprising that they could be restored at all – 65-odd years of rust, dust, dirt and grime will take their toll – but [J.B. Langston] was able to fix all three radios and clean their Bakelite cases so they look and work like new. He goes over what he discovered, how he fixed the problems and the links to where he got help when needed. We’ve seen some great vintage radio projects over the years, including adding RDS (Radio Data Systems) to a vintage radio, converting a vintage radio with modern technology and even some other radio restoration projects.

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Hollow State Receiver

[Netzener] received a Radio Shack P-Box one tube receiver as a gift. However, at the time, his construction skills were not up to the task and he never completed the project. Years later, he did complete a version of it with a few modern parts substitutions. The radio worked, but he was disappointed in its performance. Turns out, the original Radio Shack kit didn’t work so well, either. So [Netzener] did a redesign using some some old books from the 1920’s. The resulting radio–using parts you can easily buy today–works much better than the original design.

The most expensive part of the build was a 22.5V battery, which cost about $25. However, you can get away with using three 9V batteries in series if you want to save some money. The battery provides the plate voltage for the 1T4 vacuum tube. A more conventional AA battery drives the tube’s filament. Continue reading “Hollow State Receiver”

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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Simple Vacuum Tube Preamp Results in a Beautiful Build

We have no intention of wading into the vacuum tube versus silicon debates audiophiles seem to thrive on. But we know a quality build when we see it, and this gorgeous tube preamp certainly looks like it sounds good.

The amp is an attempt by builder [Timothy Cose] to give a little something back to the online community of  vacuum tube aficionados that guided him in his journey into the world of electrons under glass. Dubbed a “Muchedumbre” – Spanish for “crowd” or “mob”; we admit we don’t get the reference – the circuit is intended as a zero-gain preamp for matching impedance between line level sources and power amplifiers. Consisting of a single 12AU7 in a cathode-follower design and an EZ81 for rectification, where the amp really shines is in build quality. The aluminum and wood chassis looks great, and the point-to-point wiring is simple and neat. We especially appreciate the neatly bent component leads and the well-dressed connections on the terminal strips and octal sockets. There’s a nice photo gallery below with shots of the build.

As much as we appreciate the miracles that can be accomplished with silicon, there’s still magic aplenty with vacuum tubes. For more thermionic goodness, check out these minimalist homebrew vacuum tubes or these artisanal vacuum tubes.

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Punch Cards

Before the Commodore 64, the IBM PC, and even the Apple I, most computers took input data from a type of non-magnetic storage medium that is rarely used today: the punched card. These pieces of cardstock held programs, data, and pretty much everything used to run computers in the before-time. But with all of that paper floating around, how did a programmer or user keep up with everything? Enter the punch card sorter and [Ken Shirriff[‘s eloquent explanation of how these machines operate.

Card sorters work by reading information on the punched card and shuffling the cards into a series of stacks. As [Ken] explains, the cards can be run through the machine multiple times if they need to be sorted into more groups than the machine can manage during one run, using a radix sort algorithm.

The card reader that [Ken] examines in detail uses vacuum tubes and relays to handle the logical operation to handle memory and logic operations. This particular specimen is more than half a century old, rather robust, and a perfect piece for the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

It’s always interesting to go back and examine (mostly) obsolete technology. There are often some things that get lost in the shuffle (so to speak). Even today, punched cards live on in the automation world, where it’s still an efficient way of programming various robots and other equipment. Another place that it lives on is in voting machines in jurisdictions where physical votes must be cast. Hanging chads, anyone?

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