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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A Single Board Computer, With Vacuum Tubes

We have occasionally featured vacuum tube computers here at Hackaday and we’ve brought you many single board computers, but until now it’s probable we haven’t brought you a machine that combined both of these things. Now thanks to [Usagi Electric] we can see just such a board, in the form of his UE-0.1, a roughly 260 by 210 mm PCB with 24 6AU6 pentodes on board that implements a simple one-bit CPU.

The architecture starts with the MC14500B 1-bit microcontroller, which was the subject of a previous vacuum tube computer. People found the unusual architecture difficult to understand, so this board is an even simpler take. It doesn’t have all the features of the Motorola original but it is (just) enough to be a CPU.

The tubes are arranged in groups of four with heaters in series from a 24 V supply, while the inputs and clock come in the form of on-board suitably retro-looking switches. The final touch is a VFD of the type used in bar graphs, were used to show the state of the various bits. It’s a fully working computer in the simplest sense, and definitely worth a look in the video below the break.

It would be interesting to see whether the tube count could be reduced further, or is this a record. The number of physical devices could be cut by using tubes with more than one device in them such as double-triodes, but perhaps that would be cheating.

Meanwhile, if you think vacuum computing is all about the old stuff, perhaps you should look at the state of the art.

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A Tube Guitar Amp For A Modest Budget

There’s a mystique among both audiophiles and musicians about vacuum technology, thus having a tube amp still carries a bit of a cachet. New ones can be bought for eye-watering prices and old ones can be had for the same price with the added frisson of unreliability. Happily it’s surprisingly straightforward to build your own, as [_electroidiot] shows us with a fairly inexpensive build.

The design is inspired by the guitar amps of the 1950s and 1960s so it’s not for audiophiles. The circuit is a pretty conventional single-ended one with a two stage double triode preamp and a single power output tube. The transformers are usually the difficult part of a build like this one, and here instead of resorting to using a mains transformer for audio they come from a defunct 1960s Phillips radio. We especially like the old-school construction technique with a folded aluminium chassis and liberal use of tag strips on which to build the circuits.

The result is something that would have been in no way out of place in the 1960s, and proves that tube circuitry isn’t beyond the constructor in 2023. If it’s whetted your appetite for more, we can help you there.

The Height Of 1960s Dental Electronic Technology

If you’ve ever been to the dental surgery and found yourself requiring some gum surgery, the chances are you’ll have found your dentist wielding an electronic probe to cauterise the flesh. It’s evidently some form of RF device because you are usually required to hold one of the electrodes while it’s being used, but annoyingly, for an engineer, it’s hardly the time or place to ask how it works. For the curious, then, [Keri Szafir] has the box of tricks behind the probe and is subjecting it to a teardown.

The box on her bench isn’t the one you’ll find in your dentist’s toolkit today, but its distant ancestor from the 1960s that integrates multiple functions into a single box. It’s a very period enclosure with typically 1960s-style vacuum tubes and point-to-point wiring. There’s an HF oscillator using a pair of EL81 power pentodes for that electrode you always wished you could ask your dentist about, and unexpectedly, a thyratron, a type of gas-filled switching tube not dissimilar to a thyristor, in a separate circuit for dental pulp testing. We’re not dental experts here at Hackaday, but [Keri] has done the research and explains the device in the video below the break. At one point, she observes that it’s quite a scary machine to be connected to a living person, and we can concur with that.

Her bench has provided a few projects here in the past, including one of her amplifiers. While it might be fun to tear down a more modern version, you are better off asking for old dental burrs.

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Flipped Transformer Powers Budget-Friendly Vacuum Tube Amp

If you’ve ever wondered why something like a radio or a TV could command a hefty fraction of a family’s yearly income back in the day, a likely culprit is the collection of power transformers needed to run all those hungry, hungry tubes. Now fast-forward a half-century or more, and affordable, good-quality power transformers are still a problem, and often where modern retro projects go to die. Luckily, [Terry] at D-Lab Electronics has a few suggestions onĀ budget-friendly transformers, and even shows off a nice three-tube audio amp using them.

The reason transformers were and still are expensive has a lot to do with materials. To build a transformer with enough oomph to run everything takes a lot of iron and copper, the latter of which is notoriously expensive these days. There’s also the problem of market demand; with most modern electronics favoring switched-mode power supplies, there’s just not a huge market for these big lunkers anymore, making for a supply and demand equation that’s not in the hobbyist’s favor.

Rather than shelling out $70 or more for something like a Hammond 269EX, [Terry]’s suggestion is to modify an isolation transformer, specifically the Triad N-68X. The transformer has a primary designed for either 120 or 230 volts, and a secondary that delivers 115 volts. Turn that around, though, and you can get 230 volts out from the typical North American mains supply — good enough for the plate supply on the little amp shown. That leaves the problem of powering the heaters for the tubes, which is usually the job of a second 6- or 12-volt winding on a power transformer. Luckily, the surplus market has a lot of little 6.3-volt transformers available on the cheap, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

We have to say that the amp [Terry] put these transformers to work in sounds pretty amazing — not a hint of hum. Good work, we say, but we hope he has a plan in case the vacuum tube shortage gets any worse.

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Vacuum Chamber Gets Automation

[Nick Poole] does a lot of custom work with vacuum tubes — so much so that he builds his own vacuum tubes of various shapes, sizes, and functions right on his own workbench. While the theory of vacuum tubes is pretty straightforward, at least to those of us who haven’t only been exposed to semiconductors, producing them requires some specialized equipment. A simple vacuum won’t get you all the way there, and the complexity of the setup that’s needed certainly calls for some automation.

The vacuum system that [Nick] uses involves three sections separated by high-vacuum valves in order to achieve the pressures required for vacuum tube construction. There’s a rough vacuum section driven by one pump, a high vacuum section driven by a second pump, and a third section called the evac port where the tube is connected. Each second must be prepared properly before the next section can be engaged or disengaged. An Arduino Pro is tasked with all of this, chosen for its large amount of ADC inputs for the instrumentation monitoring the pressures in each section, as well as the digital I/O to control the valves and switches on the system.

The control system is built into a 19-inch equipment rack with custom faceplates which outline the operation of the vacuum system. A set of addressable LEDs provide the status of the various parts of the system, and mechanical keyboard switches are used to control everything, including one which functions as an emergency stop. The automation provided by the Arduino reduces the chances for any mistakes to be caused by human error, allows the human operator to focus on other tasks like forming the glass, and can also react much faster to any potentially damaging situations such as the high-pressure pump being exposed to atmospheric pressure.

As you can probably tell, [Nick] is pretty passionate about this stuff — last year he gave a talk at the Hackaday Supercon that went over all the intricacies of building one’s own vacuum tubes.

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GLASNOST Is A Computer That Makes Transparency A Priority

We live in a world where most of us take the transistor for granted. Within arm’s length of most people reading this, there are likely over ten billion of them sending electrons in every direction. But the transistor was not the first technology to come around to make the computer a possibility, but if you go to the lengths of building something with an alternative, like this vacuum tube computer, you may appreciate them just a tiny bit more.

This vacuum tube computer is called GLASNOST, which according to its creator [Paul] means “glass, no semiconductors” with the idea that the working parts of the computer (besides the passive components) are transparent glass tubes, unlike their opaque silicon-based alternatives. It boasts a graphical display on an oscilloscope, 4096 words of memory, and a custom four-bit architecture based only on NOT, NOR, and OR gates which are simpler to create with the bulky tubes.

The project is still a work in progress but already [Paul] has the core memory figured out and the computer modeled in a logic simulator. The next steps are currently being worked through which includes getting the logic gates to function in the real world. We eagerly await the next steps of this novel computer and, if you want to see one that was built recently and not in the distant past of the 1950s, take a look at the Electron Tube New Automatic Computer that was completed just a few years ago.