It is hard to imagine a time without active amplification. However, if you go back far enough, radio communications started in an era where generating RF required something like a spark gap and reception was only possible if the signal was strong enough at the antenna — like with a crystal radio. It would be a few years before tubes allowed both transmitted and receiving signals to be electronically amplified and longer still before transistors that would work at radio frequency appeared. However, even active devices have had their limitations and the parametric oscillator and amplifier are ways around some of those problems.
These were more popular in the 1970s when it was harder to get transistors that would work at very high frequencies. They are still useful when you need very low noise amplification. In addition, the same effect is used in optical devices and you can even observe the effect in mechanical devices.
What Is It Exactly?
The phrase parametric means that the amplification or oscillation occurs because of the change in a parameter of the system. A simple example would be a variable capacitor. We know the charge in a capacitor is equal to the capacitance times the voltage across the unit. That also implies that, if charge is known, we can know the voltage by dividing the charge by the capacitance. To put it in numerical terms, if a 0.1 farad capacitor has 12V across it, the charge is 1.2 coulombs. Suppose our input signal is 12V and we let the capacitor charge up to that value. Then we twist the capacitor’s knob to give it a value of 0.05 farad. The charge can’t change, so now we have 24 volts across the capacitor. That’s an amplification of 2 times. These values, of course, are not practical. Nor is it practical to twist a capacitor knob constantly to amplify. However, it is a good analog of how a parametric amplifier works.