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.
What if we told you we had a computer you can take with you? What if it only weighed 28 pounds? This is a pretty hard sell when today you can get a 1.5 GHz quad-core processor packing computer to carry in your pocket which weighs less than 5 ounces. But back in the day the Donner 3500 was something to raise an eyebrow at, especially for tinkerers like us.
The machine was unveiled in 1959 as an analog computer. Instead of accepting programs via a terminal, or punch cards, it worked more like a breadboard. The top of the case features a grid of connectors (they look like banana plugs to us but we’re not sure). The kit came with components which the user could plug into the top to make the machine function (or compute) in different ways.
We’re skeptical as to how portable this actually was. It used vacuum tubes which are not fans of being jostled. Still, coming during the days when most computers were taking up entire buildings we guess the marketing claim holds up. If you’d like to see a bit more about the machine’s internals check out this forum post.
After printing out the plastic parts, [Peter] needed to add a few strips of metal for a conductor. He used a few pieces of an ATX power supply; a little difficult to fit, but something that works all the same.
So far, [Peter] has whipped up a few sockets for UX5 and VT76 tubes, UX6, B7G (7 pin mini), and B9D Magnoval tubes. No Nixie sockets yet, but it’s enough diversity to build your own tube amp using the most common designs. Now if we could only make our own transformers with laser cutters and 3D printers…
With the death of Heathkit looming in our minds it’s high time for a a heartwarming story. [Ronald Dekker] has done a wonderful job documenting the history of the E1T beam counting tube, detailing everything from the work led up to the invention of the tube to the lives of the inventors themselves.
For those who are unaware, the E1T is a rather strange vacuum tube capable counting from 0 to 9. While that’s nothing too special in itself, the tube also displays the numbers on a phosphor screen, much like a miniature cathode ray tube. In fact, this phosphor screen and the secondary emission caused by it is critical to the tubes operation. To put it bluntly, it’s a dekatron and a magic eye tube smashed together with the kind of love only a group of physicists could provide.
Now, who wants to have the honor of transposing Ronald’s story into a wikipedia article?