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.
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!
[Blackcorvo] wrote in to tell us how he took a cheap “retro” guitar amplifier and rebuilt it with sub-miniature vacuum tubes. The end result is a tiny portable amplifier that not only looks the part, but sounds it to. He’s helpfully provided wiring schematics, build images, and even a video of the amplifier doing it’s thing.
The original Honeytone amplifier goes for about $26, and while it certainly looks old-school, the internals are anything but. [Blackcorvo] is too much of a gentleman to provide “before” pictures of the internals, but we looked it up and let’s just say it doesn’t exactly scream high quality audio. Reviews online seem to indicate it works about as well as could be expected for an amplifier that costs less than $30, but this is definitely no audiophile gear.
Powering up the miniature vacuum tubes takes a bit of modern support electronics, including a buck converter to provide the high voltage for the tubes as well as a 6V regulator. The plus side is that the new circuit can power the tubes from an input voltage between 12 and 30 volts, meaning the amplifier can still be powered by batteries if you want to take it on the go.
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.