Bill Shockley brought the transistor to a pasture in Palo Alto, but he didn’t land there by chance. There was already a plot afoot which had nothing to do with silicon, and it had already been a happening place for some time by then.
Often overshadowed by Edison and Menlo Park or Western Electric and its Bell Labs, people forget that the practical beginning of modern radio and telecommunications began unsuspectingly in the Bay Area on the shoestring-budgeted work benches of Lee de Forest at Federal Telegraph.
As the first decade of the 20th century passed, Lee de Forest was already a controversial figure. He had founded a company in New York to develop his early vacuum tubes as detectors for radio, but he was not very good at business. Some of the officers of the company decided that progress was not being made fast enough and drained the company of assets while de Forest was away. This led to years of legal troubles and the arrest of many involved due to fraud and loss of investors’ money.
A few weeks ago, [Yann] was dumpster diving and found something of interest. Two vacuum tubes, an ECC83S and an EL84. This was obviously the droppings of a local guitarist, but [Yann] wanted to know if he could build something useful out of them. An amplifier is far too pedestrian, so he settled on a vacuum tube computer.
The normal pentodes and triodes you’ll find in a tube amp require a lot of support components like output transformers, tube sockets, and high voltage power supplies. This was a little too complicated for a tube computer, but after a little bit of searching, [Yann] found a better option for his MINIVAC — subminiature vacuum tubes. These require fewer support components, and can be found for very reasonable prices through the usual component suppliers. His entry for this year’s Hackaday Prize is Hot Logic. It’s a computer — or at least computer components — built out of these tubes.
The tubes in question are a few 1Ж29Б-В and 6Н21Б tubes, a vacuum pentode and dual triode, respectively. Add in a few diodes, and that meets the requirements for being sufficient to build a computer. As a neat little bonus, these tubes have requirements that are very easy to meet. The filament on the 1Ж29Б-В tube only needs 1.2 Volts.
These subminiature tubes are a little underappreciated in the world of audiophililia and DIY electronics. That’s a bit of a shame; these tubes are the most technologically advanced vacuum-based technology ever created. They were the heart and the brains of ballistic missiles, and if you look hard enough you source hundreds of them at very reasonable prices. A vacuum tube computer requires a lot of tubes, and if anyone will be able to build a vacuum tube computer it’s going to be [Yann] and his pile of Soviet surplus.
Mass production was key to survival during the Second World War. So much stuff was made that there continues to be volumes of new unpacked stuff left over and tons of used equipment for sale at reasonable prices. Availability of this war surplus provided experimenters in the mid 20th century with access to high performance test equipment, radio equipment, and high quality components for the first time.
Even today this old stuff continues to motivate and inspire the young generations because of its high build quality, unique electro-mechanical approaches, and overall innovative designs which continue to be relevant into the 21st century. In this post we will show you how to get started in the hobby of resurrecting WW2 radio equipment and putting it back on the air.
[Simplifier]’s workshop seems like a pretty cool place. It must have a bit of an early 20th-century vibe, like the shop that [John Fleming] used for his early work on vacuum tubes. Glass work, metal work, electronics – looks like [Simplifier] has a little bit of everything going on. True to his handle, once [Simplifier] had a cheap but effective vacuum rig he started with the easiest projects – incandescent and gas discharge lamps. Satisfied that he could make solid electrical and physical connections and evacuate the tubes, he moved on to diodes and eventually triodes. The quality of the tubes is pretty impressive – stray gasses are removed with a bake-out oven and induction-heated titanium getters. And the performance is pretty solid, as the video below reveals.
Very impressive overall, and it’s not just the fact that he’s building tubes from scratch – we’ve seen that before. What shines here is that specialized equipment is not needed to make working and reliable tubes – just a MAPP torch, simple hand tools, and a low-end vacuum rig. Anybody could – and probably should – give this a try.
A very good question came up on The EEVBlog forum that I thought deserved an in depth answer. The poster asked why would amplifier companies in the heyday of tube technology operate tubes in mass produced circuits well in excess of their published manufacturers recommended limits. The simple answer is: because the could get away with it. So the real question worth exploring is how did they get away with operating outside of their own published limitations? Let’s jump in and take a look at the collection of reasons.
I was surfing the web looking for interesting projects the other day when I ran into [SkyKing’s] exquisite transistor demodulator radio builds. He mentioned that they were “Alfred P. Morgan-style” and that brought back a flood of memories about a man who introduced a whole generation to electronics and radio.
[Morgan] was born in 1889 and in the early part of the twentieth century, he was excited to build and fly an airplane. Apparently, there wasn’t a successful flight. However, he eventually succeeded and wrote his first book: “How to Build a 20-foot Bi-Plane Glider.” In 1910, he and a partner formed the Adams Morgan company to distribute radio construction kits. We probably wouldn’t remember [Morgan] for his airplanes, but we do recognize him for his work with radio.
By 1913, he published a book “The Boy Electrician” which covered the fundamentals of electricity and magnetism (at a time when these subjects were far more mysterious than they are today). [Morgan] predicted the hacker in the preface to the 1947 edition. After describing how a boy was frustrated that his model train automated to the point that he had nothing actually to do, [Morgan] observed:
The prime instinct of almost any boy at play is to make and to create. He will make things of such materials as he has at hand, and use the whole force of dream and fancy to create something out of nothing.
Of course, we know this applies to girls too, but [Morgan] wrote this in 1913, so you have to fill in the blanks. I think we can all identify with that sentiment, though.
Just when we thought we’d heard of all the cool early synthesizers, a tipster rattled our jar with news that someone completely restored a Novachord. These spinet piano-shaped prototypical synthesizers were made by Hammond for only four years. About a thousand of them were built before sales sagged and parts became scarce in 1942. It is estimated that only 200 or so are still around today.
The Novachord’s sounds are generated by a bank of twelve monostable vacuum tube oscillators. Each one is tuned to a pitch of the chromatic scale in what is called divide-down architecture. [Hammond] and his co-creators [John Hanert] and [C.N. Williams] used the property of dividing a frequency in half to generate the same tone, but one octave lower. This design means that all 72 notes can be played at the same time. Adjustable formant filters shape the often otherworldly sounds, which are then passed through flexible tube-based envelopes.
[Phil] knew it would be a big job to restore a Novachord in any condition. Thousands of passive components all had to be replaced. The cabinet bore all the hallmarks of a well-used parlor instrument—water rings from cocktails, scratches, and cigarette burns galore. [Phil] says that woodworking really isn’t his thing, but he did an outstanding job nonetheless of sanding every nook and cranny and applying several coats of stain. There are tons of drool-inducing pictures on his project site, and several clips of [Phil] really putting it through its paces.