A Tube Tester Laid Bare

There’s still a mystique around vacuum tubes long after they were rendered obsolete by solid state devices, and many continue to experiment with them. They can be bought new, but most of us still come to them through the countless old tubes that still litter our junk boxes. But how to know whether your find is any good? [Rob’s Fixit Shop] took a look at a tube tester, once a fairly ubiquitous item, but now a rare sight.

To look at it’s a box with an array of tube sockets, a meter, and a set of switches to set the pinout for the tube under test. We expected it to use a common-cathode circuit, but instead it measures leakage between the grid and the other electrodes, a measure of how good the vacuum in the device is. In a worrying turn this instrument can deliver an electric shock, something he traces to a faulty indicator light leading to the chassis. We are however still inclined to see it as anything but safe, because the lack of mains isolation still exposes the grid to unwary fingers.

All in all though it’s an interesting introduction to an unusual instrument, and given a suitable isolating transformer we wouldn’t mind the chance to have one ourselves. If you need to test a tube and don’t have one of these, don’t worry. It’s possible to roll your own.

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Roll Your Own Simple Tube Tester

You can easily get carried away when trying to test things. For example, if you want to know if your car is working, you could measure the timing of the ignition and put the car on a dynamometer. Or you could just start it and figure that if it runs and moves when you put it in drive, it is probably fine.

When [Thomas Scherrer] wanted to test some tubes, he made the same kind of assumption. While tubes can develop wacky failure modes, the normal difference between a working tube and a failing tube is usually not very subtle. He made a simple test rig to test tubes at DC and one operating point. Not comprehensive, but good enough most of the time. Have a look at what he did in the video below.

The tester is just a few resistors, a tube socket, and some bench power supplies. Of course, you may have to adapt it to whatever tube you are testing. If we had a lot of tubes to do, we might make the rig a bit more permanent, but for an afternoon of testing, what he has would be fine.

In addition to the power supplies, you’ll need at least one, preferably two, volt meters. He was able to validate his results with a proper tube tester. The results matched up well. While this won’t solve all your tube testing problems, it will give you a quick start.

You can build your own modern tube tester, of course. Or pick up a vintage one. Our favorite one uses punched cards.

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Vintage Tube Tester Teardown

[Mr. Carlson] has an old-style 1940-era radio tube tester, the kind that used to inhabit grocery and drug stores. It is in amazing condition and he was kind enough to tear it down for us. The tester is a Model X from the Radiotechnic Laboratory in Evanston Illinois and, like [Mr. Carlson], we were amused that one of the indicators on the device is a Ouija board-like “doubtful” reading. When it lights up, it looks amazing.

This is much older than the old “TV tube testers” we remember as a kid, but the idea is the same: you have a bad radio or TV with tubes in it, it is a fair bet that the problem is a tube. Even if you don’t know much about electronics, you can carefully remove the tubes, drive over to the drugstore, test your tubes and buy a replacement for any that are bad. Uniquely, this tester even had a speaker you could use to listen to the tube’s output while testing.

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Testing A Tube Without A Tube Tester

[M Caldeira] needed to test a tube and didn’t have a spare to do the old swap test. He also didn’t have a tube tester handy. Drawing inspiration from a 2015 video, he managed to cobble up an ad hoc tube tester using stuff around the workbench. You can see a video of the process below.

To duplicate his effort, you are going to need a few meters. Good thing they are relatively cheap these days. Usually, a tube tester has a way to adjust all the different parameters for the tube, but there’s no reason you can’t just set those parameters using your testbench power supplies.

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Modern Tube Tester Uses Arduino

There was a time when people like us might own a tube tester and even if you didn’t, you probably knew which drug store had a tube testing machine you could use for free. We aren’t sure that’s a testament to capitalistic ingenuity or an inditement of tube reliability — maybe both. As [Usagi] has been working on some tube-based projects, he decided he needed a tester so he built one. You can see the results in the video, below.

The tester only uses 24V, but for the projects he’s building, that’s close to the operation in the real circuits. He does have a traditional tube tester, but it uses 100s of volts which is a different operating regime.

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Your 1958 Punch Card Machine Tested Tubes

We think of punched cards as old-fashioned, but still squarely part of the computer age. Turns out, cards were in use way before they got conscripted by computers. Jacquard looms are one famous example. The U.S. Census famously used punched cards for tabulating the census without anything we’d consider a computer. But in the 1950s, you might have had a punched card machine on your electronics workbench. The Hickok Cardmatic was a tube tester with a difference.

About Tube Testers

While you, as a Hackaday reader, might tear into a busted TV at your house and try to fix it, most people today will either scrap a bad set or pay someone to fix it. That’s fine today. TVs are cheap and rarely break, anyway. But this hasn’t always been the case.

In the “good old days” your expensive TV broke down all the time. Most of the parts were reliable, but the tubes would wear out. If you were the kind of person who would change your own oil, you’d probably look to see if you could spot a burned out tube and try replacing it. If you couldn’t spot it, you’d pull all the tubes out. If you were lucky, there was a diagram glued inside the cover that showed where they all went back. Then you took them to the drugstore.

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Restoring A Vintage Tube Tester To Its Former Glory

It can be difficult for modern eyes to make much sense of electronics from the 1960s or earlier. Between the point-to-point soldering, oddball components, and the familiar looking passives blown up to comical proportions like rejected props from “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”, even experienced hardware hackers may find themselves struggling to understand what a circuit is doing. But that didn’t stop [Cat0Charmer] from taking the time to lovingly restore this Hickok Cardmatic KS-15874-L2 tube tester.

The good news was that the machine had nearly all of its original parts, down to the Hickok branded tubes in the power supply. Unfortunately it looks like a few heavy handed repairs were attempted over the years, with a nest of new wires and components intermixed with what [Cat0Charmer] actually wanted to keep. The before and after shots of individual sections of the machine are particularly enlightening, though again, don’t feel to bad if you still can’t make heads or tails of the cleaned up version.

Hiding new capacitors inside of the old ones.

As you’d expect for a machine of this age, many of the original components were way out of spec. Naturally the capacitors were shot, but even the carbon composition resistors were worthless after all these years; with some measuring 60% away from their original tolerances.

We particularly liked how [Cat0Charmer] hollowed out the old capacitors and installed the new modern ones inside of them, preserving the tester’s vintage look. This trick wasn’t always feasible, but where it was applied, it definitely looks better than seeing a modern capacitor adrift in a sea of 60’s hardware.

After undoing ham-fisted repairs, replacing the dud components, and installing some new old stock tubes, the tester sprung to life with renewed vigor. The previously inoperable internal neon lamps, used by the tester’s voltage regulation system, shone brightly thanks to all the ancillary repairs and changes that went on around them. With a DIY calibration cell built from the schematics in an old Navy manual, [Cat0Charmer] got the tester dialed in and ready for the next phase of its long and storied career.

We love seeing old hardware get restored. It not only keeps useful equipment out of the scrap heap, but because blending new and old technology invariably leads to the kind of innovative problem solving this community is built on.