New Circuits With Old Technology

Before the invention of transistors, vacuum tubes ruled the world. The only way to get amplification or switching (or any electrical control of current) back then was to use tubes. But some tube design limitations were obvious even then. For one, they produce an incredible amount of heat during normal operation, which leads to reliability issues. Tubes were difficult to miniaturize. Thankfully transistors solved all of these issues making vacuum tubes obsolete, but if you want to investigate the past a little bit there are still a few tubes on the market.

[kodera2t] was able to get his hands on a few of these, and they seem to be relatively new. This isn’t too surprising; there are some niche applications where tubes are still used. These have some improvements over their ancestors too, operating at only 30V compared to hundreds of volts for some older equipment. [kodera2t] takes us through a few circuits built with these tubes, from a simple subminiature vacuum tube radio to a more complex reflex radio.

Taking a walk through this history is an interesting exercise, and it’s worth seeing the ways that transistor-based circuits differ from tube-based circuits. If you’re interested enough to move on beyond simple radio circuits, though, you can also start building your own audio equipment with vacuum tubes.

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Help Solve The Single-Transistor Latch Mystery

If you’ve spent any time on, you may have noticed that more than a few denizens of the site are fans of “alternative” electronic logic. Aiming to create digital circuits from such things as relays, vacuum tubes, discrete transistors, and occasionally diodes, they come up with designs that use these components in either antiquated or occasionally new and unexpected ways. This is exactly what [Mark Sherman] has done with his latest project, a single-transistor latch.

If you think every design has to compete with cutting-edge integrated circuits, or even must have an immediate practical application, you might as well stop reading now — and to play on the famous Louis Armstrong quip about jazz, if you have to ask why someone would do such a thing, you’ll never know.

Given that you’ve come this far, you’ll appreciate what [Mark] has come up with. It’s semi-well-known that the collector-emitter junction of a bipolar junction transistor (BJT) can exhibit a negative resistance characteristic when reverse-biased into avalanche breakdown. It’s this principle that allows a single BJT to be used as an ultra-simple LED flasher. [Mark] took this concept and ran with it, creating a single-transistor latch that can store one bit of information. As a bonus — or is it a requirement? — the transistor also drives an LED, so that you can visualize the state. We’ve seen a one-transistor flip-flop before, but that one also required diodes and an AC bias supply. In this new device, none of this is necessary, so it’s a step up according to the unwritten, unspoken, and generally agreed upon rules of the game.

In true hacker fashion, [Mark] came up with a working device without fully understanding exactly how it works.  We, too, are a little mystified at first glance. So, [Mark] is asking for your help in replicating and/or analyzing the circuit. He explains what he has found so far in the video after the break, but the main questions seem to revolve around why the base resistor is required, and why it works with 2N4401s but not 2N2222s.

So, Hackaday, what’s going on here? Sound off in the comments below.

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Fun With Negative Resistance: Jellybean Transistors

The concept of negative resistance has always fascinated me. Of course, a true negative resistance is not possible, and what is meant is a negative differential resistance (NDR). But of course knowing the correct term doesn’t do anything to demystify the topic. Negative resistance sounds like an unusual effect, but it turns out to be relatively common, showing up in places like neon lamps and a number of semiconductor structures. Now’s as good a time as any to dig in and learn more about this common principle.

NDR means a portion of a device’s I/V curve where the current falls with increasing applied voltage. The best-known semiconductor device exhibiting negative resistance is the tunnel diode, also known as the Esaki diode after one of the Nobel-Prize-winning discoverers of the quantum tunneling effect responsible for its operation. These diodes can perform at tremendous speeds; the fastest oscilloscope designs relied on them for many years. As the transistor and other technologies improved, however, these diodes were sidelined for many applications, and new-production models aren’t widely available — a sad state for would-be NDR hackers. But, all hope is not lost.

Rummaging through some old notebooks, I rediscovered an NDR design I came up with in 2002 using two common NPN transistors and a handful of resistors; many readers will already have the components necessary to experiment with similar circuits. In this article, we’ll have a look at what you can do with junkbox-class parts, and in a future article we’ll explore the topic with some real tunnel diodes.

So, let’s see what you can do with a couple of jellybean transistors!

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Retrotechtacular: How Not To Design With Transistors

Consider the plight of a mid-career or even freshly minted electrical engineer in 1960. He or she was perched precariously between two worlds – the proven, practical, and well-supported world of vacuum tube electronics, and the exciting, new but as yet unproven world of the transistor. The solid-state devices had only started making inroads into electronic products relatively recently, and mass production techniques were starting to drive the cost per unit down enough to start including them in your designs. But, your company has a long history with hot glass and no experience with flecks of silicon. What to do?

To answer that question, you might have turned to this helpful guide, “Tubes and Transistors: A Comparative Guide” (PDF link). The fancy booklet, with a great graphic design that our own [Joe Kim] would absolutely love, was the product of the Electron Tube Information Council, an apparently defunct group representing the interests of the vacuum tube manufacturers. Just reading the introduction of this propaganda piece reveals just how worried companies like RCA, General Electric, and Westinghouse must have been as the 1950s turned into the 1960s. The booklet was clearly aimed directly at engineers and sought to persuade them of the vacuum tube’s continued relevance and long-term viability. They helpfully explain that tubes are a reliable, proven technology that had powered decades of designs, and that innovations such as heaterless cathodes and miniaturization were just around the corner. Transistors, we’re told, suffer from “spread of characteristics” that correctly describes the state of materials engineering of silicon and germanium at the time, a thornier problem than dealing with glass and wires but that they had to know would be solved within a few years.

With cherry-picked facts and figures, the booklet makes what was probably in 1960 a persuasive case for sticking with tubes. But the Electron Tube Information Council was fighting a losing battle, and within a decade of swamping engineers with this book, the industry had largely shifted to the transistor. Careers were disrupted, jobs disappeared, and fortunes were lost, but the industry pressed forward as it always does. Still, it’s understandable why they tried so hard to stem the tide with a book like this. The whole PDF is worth a look, and we’d love to have a hard copy just for nostalgia’s sake.

Thanks to [David Gustafik] for the tip.

Bell Labs, Skunk Works, And The Crowd Sourcing Of Innovation

I’ve noticed that we hear a lot less from corporate research labs than we used to. They still exist, though. Sure, Bell Labs is owned by Nokia and there is still some hot research at IBM even though they quit publication of the fabled IBM Technical Disclosure Bulletin in 1998. But today innovation is more likely to come from a small company attracting venture capital than from an established company investing in research. Why is that? And should it be that way?

The Way We Were

There was a time when every big company had a significant research and development arm. Perhaps the most famous of these was Bell Labs. Although some inventions are inevitably disputed, Bell Labs can claim radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, Unix, C, and C++ among other innovations. They also scored a total of nine Nobel prizes.

Bell Labs had one big advantage: for many years it was part of a highly profitable monopoly, so perhaps the drive to make money right away was less than at other labs. Also, I think, times were different and businesses often had the ability to look past the next quarter.

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Julius Lilienfeld And The First Transistor

Here’s a fun exercise: take a list of the 20th century’s inventions and innovations in electronics, communications, and computing. Make sure you include everything, especially the stuff we take for granted. Now, cross off everything that can’t trace its roots back to the AT&T Corporation’s research arm, the Bell Laboratories. We’d wager heavily that the list would still contain almost everything that built the electronics age: microwave communications, data networks, cellular telephone, solar cells, Unix, and, of course, the transistor.

But is that last one really true? We all know the story of Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley, the brilliant team laboring through a blizzard in 1947 to breathe life into a scrap of germanium and wires, finally unleashing the transistor upon the world for Christmas, a gift to usher us into the age of solid state electronics. It’s not so simple, though. The quest for a replacement for the vacuum tube for switching and amplification goes back to the lab of  Julius Lilienfeld, the man who conceived the first field-effect transistor in the mid-1920s.

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New Transistor Uses Metal And Air Instead Of Semiconductors

The more things change, the more things stay the same. Early electronic devices used a spark gap. These have been almost completely replaced with tubes and then semiconductor devices such as transistors. However, transistors will soon reach a theoretical limit on how small they can be which is causing researchers to find the next thing. If the  Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology has its way, we’ll go back to something that has more in common with a spark gap than a conventional transistor. You can find the source paper on the Nano Papers website although the text is behind a paywall.

The transistor uses metal, but instead of a semiconductor channel — which is packed with atoms that cause collisions as electrons flow through the channel — the new device uses an air gap. You might well think that if fewer atoms in the channel are better, why not use a vacuum?

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