Over the years, there have been several memory and display technologies that served a particular niche for a while, only to be replaced and forgotten when a more suitable technology came along. One of those was the dekatron: a combination memory and display tube that saw some use in the 1950s and ’60s but became obsolete soon after. Their retro design and combined memory/display functionality make them excellent components for today’s clock hackers however, as [grobinson6000] demonstrates in his Dekaclock project.
A dekatron tube is basically a neon tube with ten cathodes arranged in a circle. Only one of them is illuminated at any time, and you can make the tube jump to the next cathode by applying pulses to its pins. The Dekaclock uses the 50 Hz mains frequency to generate 20 ms pulses in one tube; when it reaches 100 ms, it triggers the next tube that counts hundreds of ms, which triggers another one that counts seconds, and so on with minutes and hours.
The Dekaclock uses no semiconductors at all: the entire system is built from glass tubes and passive components. However, [grobinson6000] also built an auxiliary system, full of semiconductors, that makes the clock a bit easier to use. It sits on top of the Dekaclock and automatically sets the correct time using a GPS receiver. It also keeps track of the time displayed by the dekatrons, and tells you how far they have drifted from their initial setting.
Typically, if you want to convert solar energy into electrical energy, you use either photovoltaic (PV) cells, or you use the sunlight to create steam to turn a turbine. Both of these methods are well-established and used regularly in both small- and grid-scale applications. However, [Nick Poole] wanted to investigate an alternative method, using thermionic converters for solar power generation.
[Nick] has been gearing up to produce various styles of vacuum tubes, and noted that the thermionic effect that makes them work could also be used to generate electricity. They are highly inefficient and produce far less power than a photovoltaic solar cell, meaning they’re not in common use. However, as [Nick] notes, unlike PV cells etched in silicon, a thermionic converter can be built with basic glassworking tools, requiring little more than a torch, a vacuum pump, and a spot welder.
Experiments with a large lens to focus sunlight onto a 6V3A diode tube showed promise. [Nick] was able to generate half a volt, albeit at a tiny current, with the design not being optimized for thermionic conversion. Further experiments involved electrically heating a pair of diode tubes, which was able to just barely light an LED at 1.7 V and a current of 7.5 uA. The conversion efficiency was a lowly 0.00012%, around 5 orders of magnitude worse than a typical PV cell.
[Nick]’s hope is that he can produce a tube designed specifically to maximize thermionic conversion for energy generation purposes. It’s likely there is some low-hanging fruit in terms of gains to be made simply by optimizing the design for this purpose, even if the technique can’t compete with other solar generation methods.
Before you could just put a drum machine app on your phone, or fire up Garage Band, there were breakthroughs like the Roland 808 drum machine. But that’s not where it all started. In 1959 a company called Wurlitzer (known for things like juke boxes, pianos, and giant pipe organs) produced a new device that had musicians worried it would put drummers out of a job: The 1959 Wurlitzer Sideman. And in the video below the break, we have the joy of watching [LOOK MUM NO COMPUTER] open up, explain, and play one of these marvelous machines.
It’s noteworthy that in 1959, almost none of the advancements we take for granted had made it out of the laboratory. Transistors? Nope. Integrated Circuits? Definitely not. What does that leave us with? Vacuum tubes (Valves for those across the pond), resistors, capacitors, relays, and… motors? Yep. Motors.
The unit is artfully constructed, and we mean that quite literally- the build was clearly done with care and it is easy to see an early example of circuit sculpture around the 3 minute mark. Electromechanical mechanisms take on tasks that we’d probably use a 555 for these days, but for any of you working on mechanical projects, take note: Wurlitzer really knew what they were doing, and there are some excellent examples of mechanical and electrical engineering throughout this primordial beat box.
As those of us who work in electronics are grappling with a semiconductor shortage making common devices unobtainable and less common ones very expensive, it’s worth noting that there’s another supply crunch playing out elsewhere in the electronics industry. It’s not one that should trouble most readers but it’s a vexing problem in the guitar amp business, as guitar.com reports. At its root is the Chinese Shuguang factory, which it is reported has been forced to close down and move its operations. There’s nothing about this on the Shuguang website, so we hope that the plant has been relocated successfully and production will resume.
The specialist audio market that forms the lion’s share of tube customers in 2021 is a relatively tiny corner of the electronics business, but it’s interesting to note that the three major plants which supply it, in Slovakia, Russia, and China, are still not enough to prevent it being vulnerable when one of them fails. The likelihood of a fourth tube plant emerging somewhere else in the 2020s to take up the slack is not high, but it’s evident that the demand remains healthy enough.
In 2021 all our electronics are solid state, in that they exclusively use semiconductor devices as their active components. Some of us may experiment with vacuum tubes, but only for curiosity or aesthetic purposes. Semiconductors have overtaken vacuum devices in all but the rarest of niche applications due to their easier design requirements, greater reliability, lower cost, and increased performance.
It was not always this way though, and there was a period at the start of the semiconductor era when transistors and vacuum tubes existed together side-by-side and competed directly. Vacuum tube manufacturers continued to create new devices into the 1970s, and in doing so they pushed the boundaries of their art in unprecedented directions. [David W Knight] has a page dedicated to the Nuvistor, something his calls the “final evolution of the thermionic valve”. His comparison photo seen above shows a Nuvistor on the left — a miniature vacuum tube you’ve likely never seen before.
Vacuum tubes ruled electronics for several decades and while you might think of them as simple devices analogous to a transistor or FET, there were many special types. We’re all familiar with nixie tubes that act as numeric displays, and there are other specialty tubes that work as a photomultiplier, to detect radiation, or even generate microwaves. But one of the most peculiar and distinctive specialty tubes has an intriguing name: a magic eye tube. When viewed from the top, you see a visual indication that rotates around a central point, the out ring glowing while the inner is dark, like an iris and pupil.
These tubes date back to the RCA 6E5 in 1935. At the time, test equipment that used needles was expensive to make, so there was always a push to replace them with something cheaper. They were something like a stunted cathode ray tube. In fact, the inventor, Allen DuMont, was well known for innovations in television. An anode held a coating that would glow when hit with electrons — usually green, but sometimes other colors. Later tubes would show a stripe going up and down the tube instead of a circle, but you still call them magic eyes.
The indicator part of this virtual meter took the form of a shadow. Based on the applied signal, the shadow would be larger or smaller. Many tubes also contained a triode which would drive the tube from a signal.
For most of us, electronic technology comes in the form of solid state devices. Transistors, integrated circuits, microcontrollers. But for the first sixty years or so of the field existing, these devices either hadn’t been invented yet or were at too early a stage in their development to be either cost-effective, or of much use. Instead a very different type of electronic component ruled the roost, the vaccum tube.
A set of electrodes in an evacuated glass envelope whose electrical properties depended on the modulation of the flow of electrons through them, these were ubiquitous in consumer electronics up until the 1960s, and clung on in a few mass-market applications even as far as the mid 1970s. As cheaper and more versatile semiconductors superseded them they faded from electronic parts catalogues, and the industry that had once produced them in such numbers disappeared in favour of plants producing the new devices. Consumer products no longer contained them, and entire generations of engineers grew up never having worked with them at all. If you were building a tube amplifier in the early 1990s, you were a significant outlier. Continue reading “Just Who Makes Tubes These Days?”→