With the wealth of cheap and highly integrated audio amplifier modules on the market today, it takes a special dedication to roll your own from parts. Especially when those parts include vacuum tubes, and doubly so when you make the vacuum tubes from scratch too.
Now, we get it — some readers are going to find it hard to invest an hour in watching [jdflyback] make a pair of triodes to build his amplifier. But really, you’ve got to check this out. Making vacuum tubes with all the proper equipment — glassblower’s lathe, various kinds of oxy-fuel torches, all the right hand tools — is hard enough. But when your lathe is a cordless drill, and you’re using a spot welder that looks like it’s cobbled together from junk, your tube-making game gets a lot harder. Given all that, you’d expect the tubes to look a lot rougher than they are, but even with plain tungsten wire heaters and grids made from thick copper wire, they actually work pretty well. Sure, the heaters glow as bright as light bulbs, but that’s all part of the charm.
Speaking of charm, we just love the amp these tubes went into. Built in 1920s breadboard-style, the features some beautiful vintage mica capacitors and wirewound resistors, plus a variable resistor the likes of which we’ve never seen. The one nod to modernity is the clever use of doorbell transformers, one for a choke and one for the speaker transformer. They don’t sound great, but there’s no doubt they work.
We may have seen other homemade vacuum tubes before — we even recently featured a DIY X-ray tube — but there’s something about [jdflyback]’s tubes that really gets us going.
Continue reading “A Homemade Tube Amplifier Featuring Homemade Tubes”
It’s best to admit upfront that vacuum tubes can be baffling to some of the younger generation of engineers. Yes, we get how electron flow from cathode to anode can be controlled with a grid, and how that can be used to amplify and control current. But there are still some things that just don’t always to click when looking at a schematic for a tube circuit. Maybe we just grew up at the wrong time.
Someone who’s clearly not old enough to have ridden the first wave of electronics but still seems to have mastered the concepts of thermionic emission is [Usagi Electric], who has been doing some great work on reverse engineering modules from old vacuum tube computers. The video below focuses on a two-tube pluggable module from an IBM 650, a machine that dates clear back to 1954. The eBay find was nothing more than two tube sockets and a pair of resistors joined to a plug by a hoop of metal. With almost nothing to go on, [Usagi] was still able to figure out what tubes would have gone in the sockets — the nine-pin socket was a big clue — and determine that the module was likely a dual NAND gate. To test his theory, [Usagi] took some liberties with the original voltages used by IBM and built a breakout PCB. It’s an interesting mix of technologies, but he was able to walk through the truth table and confirm that his module is a dual NAND gate.
The video is a bit long but it’s chock full of tidbits that really help clear up how tubes work. Along with some help from this article about how triodes work, this will put you on the path to thermionic enlightenment.
Continue reading “Reverse Engineering A Module From A Vacuum Tube Computer”
We see quite a bit of work where people decapsulate ICs or other solid state devices to expose their inner workings. But how about hollow state? [Tomtektest] had a dual triode that has lost its vacuum integrity — gone to air, as he calls it — and decided to open it up to better expose its inner workings. (Video, embedded below.)
Of course, you can always see the innards through the glass, but it is interesting to have the envelope out of the way. Apparently, how you remove the glass is a bit tricky if you don’t want to damage the working bits as you remove it.
Continue reading “Decapsulating A Dual Triode”
The triode vacuum tube might be nearly obsolete today, but it was a technology critical to making radio practical over 100 years ago. [Kathy] has put together a video that tells the story and explains the physics of the device.
The first radio receivers used a device called a Coherer as a detector, relying on two tiny filaments that would stick together when RF was applied, allowing current to pass through. It was a device that worked, but not reliably. It was in 1906 that Lee De Forest came up with a detector device for radios using a vacuum tube containing a plate and a heated filament. This device so strongly resembled the Fleming Valve which John Fleming had patented a year before, that Fleming sued De Forest for patent infringement.
After a bunch of attempts to get around the patent, De Forest decided to add a third element to the tube: the grid. The grid is a piece of metal that sits between the filament and the plate. A signal applied to the grid will control the flow of electrons, allowing this device to operate as an amplifier. The modification created the triode, and got around Fleming’s patent.
[Kathy]’s video does a great job of taking you through the creation of the device, which you can watch after the break. She also has a whole series on the history of electricity, including a video on the Arc Transmitter which we featured previously.
Continue reading “The History And Physics Of Triode Vacuum Tubes”
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of creation as we’re building our latest widget. By the same token, it’s sometimes difficult to fully appreciate just how old some of the circuits we use are. Even the simplest of projects might make use of elements that were once a mess on some physicist’s or engineer’s lab bench, with components screwed to literal breadboards and power supplied by banks of wet-cell batteries.
One such circuit turns 100 years old in June, which is surprising because it literally is the building block of every computer. It’s the flip-flop, and while its inventors likely couldn’t have imagined what they were starting, their innovation became the basic storage system for the ones and zeros of the digital age.
Continue reading “A 100th Birthday Celebration For The Flip Flop”
If you were given the task of designing a computer at a time when computers weren’t really even a thing, how would you start? How would you take a collection of vacuum tubes, passive components, and a precious few germanium diodes and engineer something to sell to customers looking for an “electronic brain”?
Where there’s a paycheck, there’s a way, and computer archeologist [Ken Shirriff] laid his hands on some old IBM hardware that tells us a lot about how engineers thought in the earliest days of the computer industry. The gear is a pluggable module from IBM, one of hundreds that once went into their Model 705 computer from the mid-1950s. The particular module [Ken] has is a 5-channel contact debouncer, or in Big Blue’s mid-century parlance, a “Contact-Operated Trigger.” It was used to debounce five of the many, many mechanical contacts in the machine, both buttons and relays, and used eight dual triode tubes to do it. Other modules with the exact same footprint formed the flip-flops, inverters, buffers and clocks needed to build a computer.
[Ken]’s analysis of the debouncer is a fascinating look at what was possible with the technology of the day, and the fact that it led to a standardized framework for generic modules that were actually hot-swappable with what essentially was a zero insertion force plug was quite a feat of engineering. And as a bonus, [Ken] and friends actually got the module up in running in the video after the break.
Jonesing for more retro-computer pluggable goodness? Check out this reproduction IBM flip-flop module from the 1940s.
Continue reading “Debouncing The Old-Fashioned Way”
As useful as computers are, most of them have all the design charm of a rubber doorstop. Oh, for the heady early days of computing, when vacuum tubes ruled, hardware was assembled by hand, and engineers always wore a tie.
Looking to recreate an elegant bit of computing hardware from that more civilized age, [updatebjarni] built a reproduction of a 1948 IBM TR-2 flip-flop module — 1,250 of which once formed the memory of the IBM Model 604 Calculating Punch. Admittedly more of a high-speed adding machine than a computer, the 604 is still an important piece of computing history, and [updatebjarni]’s scrap-bin reproduction of the field-replaceable module served as part of a computer history exhibit.
With a single 6J6 double triode tube nestled inside a bent aluminum frame, the goal was to reproduce the appearance of the original TR-2 module, and so the passive components wired up point-to-point style below the tube socket were chosen for their vintage look. That’s not to say the flip-flop won’t function. Although [updatebjarni] hasn’t tested it, he’s built other functional flip-flops from vintage components before, so this one should work too. Only 1,249 left to build and he’ll have enough for a working 604.
If you like this kind of build, you should probably check out some of our Vintage Computer Festival coverage. VCF East in April was a huge success, and VCF West is coming up in August in Mountain View. Hackaday will be well represented there, so stop by.