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.
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?”→
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.
There is disquiet in the world of vacuum electronics, that something as simple as shipping a vacuum tube could now be very difficult to achieve. It’s a concern expressed among other places in a video by [Guitologist] that we’ve included below, and includes tales of vacuum tubes being impounded as either dangerous to ship, or not allowed to be shipped across international borders.
Upon investigation it appears that the common thread in all the stories lies with eBay’s Global Shipping Program, the centralised shipping service operated by the online auction giant. We reached out to eBay’s press office on the subject but have yet to receive a reply. It’s best to ask someone who ships a lot of tubes for comment when you have a tube shipping story, so we also had a conversation with TC Tubes. They’re a small company dealing in tubes, and as you might imagine they ship a lot of them (Their website is likely to detain you for a while if you are a tube-head). [Chelsea] from TC Tubes told us that they have encountered no regulatory barriers to tube shipping, and that their only bad experience has been yet again with eBay’s Global Shipping Program.
So it seems there is no cause for panic if you ship tubes, CE marking or RoHS rules haven’t come for your EL34s and your 6550s. Ebay have evidently got some kind of issue with tubes in their shipping operation, and perhaps you should ship by other means if you wish to avoid your tubes going astray. The consensus here among the Hackaday crew is that it could be as simple as uninformed employees not being aware of what tubes are because they aren’t as common as they used to be. After all, with over a hundred years of history behind them it’s not as though any potential issues with their shipping haven’t been comprehensively explored.
We’d still be interested to hear from eBay on the matter though, if they would care to comment.
[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.
This is a pretty cool project [Sebastian Morales] is working on – a 3D printed Pneumatic Multiplexer. Large interactive installations, kinetic art and many other applications require large numbers of actuators to be controlled. For these type of projects to work, a large number of actuators equals higher resolution and that allows the viewer to be captivated by the piece.
The larger the system becomes, the more complex it becomes to control all of those actuators. [Sebestian] wanted to move a large number of components with a relatively low number of inputs. He thought of creating a mechanical equivalent of the familiar electronic X-Y matrix that can control large quantities of outputs using only a few inputs – in a more descriptive form, Outputs=(Inputs/2)^2.
He looked at chemical reactions that change liquids in to gases, but that seemed pretty complicated. Refrigerants used in air conditioning looked promising, but their handling and safety aspects looked challenging.
Eventually, he decided to look at using “air logic“. Air logic uses pneumatic devices to create relays, limit switches, AND gates, NAND gates, OR gates, amplifiers, equivalent to electrical circuits. Electrical energy is replaced with compressed air. His plan was to build a multiplexer whose elements would open only if the combination of pressure between both lines was the right one. As in electronics, NAND logic is easy to implement. A moving element creates a seal and only allows air out if the bottom line was low and the top line was high.
He had access to a high resolution, resin based 3D printer which allowed him to create fully air-tight systems. He started with prototyping a small 4×4 matrix to test out his design, and had to work through 6 to 7 iterations before he could get it to work. The next step was to create a larger matrix of 100 elements controlled by 20 inputs (10×10 matrix). He created Omnifarious – a kinetic sculpture demonstrating the concept of shapeshifting objects. The Omnifarious is a hexecontahedron which would be able to transform its surface to render different geometries via 59 balloons on its surface. Below, you can check the videos of his progress building the various prototypes and another video showing the Omnifarious sculpture.