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?”→
Vacuum tubes fueled a technological revolution. They made the amplification of signals a reality for transatlantic telephone cables (and transcontinental ones too), they performed logic for early computers, and they delivered that warm fuzzy sound for high fidelity audio. But they were labor intensive to produce, and fragile, so semiconductors came along and replaced tubes in almost every application. But of course tubes are still with us and some tube applications are still critical — you’ll find them used in high-power RF and there are even satellites that depend on klystrons. So there are still experts in tube fabrication around, and Charles Alexanian is one of them. His newly-published talk at the 2018 Hackaday Supercon (found below) is a whirlwind tour of what goes into building a vacuum tube.
The process of building your own vacuum tube isn’t hard, but it’s not a walk in the park. The difficulty comes in the sheer number of processes, and the tricks of the trade found at every step. Charles’ methaphor is that if you build one tube at a time each step is like learning to ride a bicycle again, but if you build many you get into the swing of it and things go a lot better. His talk is a brief overview of everything, but if you want to drill down he also wrote an excellent article that goes further in depth.
In the working components of each tube are the precision parts: the grid (or grids). For the tube to function well these must be accurately produced which can be done with photolithography, but Charles usually uses a winding process involving a lathe. After winding, the grid is stretched to straighten the nickel wire, then cut to length. Other components such as the plate are stamped using an arbor press and simple forms he fabricates for the purpose.
Tube sealing machine common in factories
Lathe setup used for 1-off tube sealing
Two glass components are used, the dome itself, and feedthrough stems that have a wire for each lead passing through a glass disc. The components are spot welded to the inside portion of the feedthrough stem, then the glass is fused together, again using a lathe. It heads over to a pumping station to evacuate the air from the tube, and is finally tested for leaks using a handheld Tesla coil (see, we knew those weren’t just toys).
Charles proposed his Supercon appearance as a chance to fabricate tubes on-site. We loved the idea, but the amount of gear needed is somewhat prohibitive (annealing ovens, vacuum cabinets, torches for sealing, and the need for 220v, plus space for it all). That’s too bad since we were really hoping to see the Jolly Wrencher in Nixie-tube form — incidentally, Charles says Nixes are simple to make compared to amplifiers and switches. He also mentions that the majority of your time is spent “washing” parts to remove impurities. Fair enough, that part sounds boring, but we hope to endure it at some point in the future because vacuum tube fabrication demos feel very much like a Hackaday event!
The vacuum tube is largely ignored in modern electronic design, save for a few audio applications such as guitar and headphone amps. The transistor is smaller, cheaper, and inordinately easier to manufacture. By comparison, showing us just how much goes into the manufacture of a tube, [glasslinger] decided to make a wire-element pilotron – from scratch!
To say this is an involved build is an understatement. Simply creating the glass tube itself takes significant time and skill. [glasslinger] shows off the skills of a master, however – steadily working through the initial construction, before showing off advanced techniques necessary to seal in electrodes, produce the delicate wire grid, and finally pull vacuum and seal the tube completely.
The project video is an hour long, and no detail is skipped. From 2% thoriated tungsten wire to annealing torches and grades of glass, it’s all there. It’s enough that an amateur could reproduce the results, given enough attempts and a complete shop of glassworking equipment.
The pilotron may be a forgotten design, but in 2018 it once again gets its day in the sun. Overall, it’s a testament to [glasslinger]’s skill and ability to be able to produce such a device that not only looks the part, but is fully functional on an electronic level, as well.
If you asked [Hans_Daniel] what he learned by building a tube audio amplifier with a dozen tubes that he found, the answer might just be, “don’t wind your own transformers.” We were impressed, though, that he went from not knowing much about tubes to a good looking amplifier build. We also like the name — NASS II-12 which apparently stands for “not a single semiconductor.”
Even the chassis looked really good. We didn’t know textolite was still a thing, but apparently, the retro laminate is still around somewhere. It looks like a high-end audio component and with the tubes proudly on display on the top, it should be a lot of fun to use.