Vacuum Tube Thermionic Valve History

- the history of the vacuum tube or thermionic valve from the first observations of the Edison Effect through early developments such as Fleming's Oscillation Valve and de Forest's Audion.

The vacuum tube or thermionic valve brought the dawn of the age of electronics. Its invention enabled the wireless technology of the day to move forward.

The history of the vacuum tube or thermionic valve brings many individual discoveries together that enable the invention to be made.

The history of the thermionic valve also moves on to tell of the further developments that were made.

All these individual elements take their place in the overall history of the thermionic valve or vacuum tube.

Early valve or tube history

The first vacuum tube was not made until the beginning of the 20th Century, but the foundations for its discovery were laid many years before. Professor Guthrie made one of the first discoveries in 1873. He was investigating effects associated with charged objects and he showed that a red-hot iron sphere that was negatively charged would become discharged. He also found that the same did not happen if the sphere was positively charged.

The American inventor named Thomas Edison took the next major step in 1883. Edison was developing electric light systems and one of the major problems that he was facing was their short life. Although the filament life was a problem, the main limiting factor was that the bulbs quickly became blackened. Initially it was thought that this was caused by atoms of carbon from the element hitting the glass. As it was known that the particles leaving the element were negatively charged, experiments were carried out to prevent them hitting the glass. One method that Edison tried involved placing a second element into the envelope. He reasoned that if he placed a positive charge on the second electrode, particles could be attracted away from hitting the glass of the bulb. Edison experimented with the polarity of the charge on the second electrode and he noticed that when the second element was made positive with respect to the filament then a current flowed in the circuit. When the potentials were reversed he noticed that this did not happen. Edison was fascinated by the effect but uncharacteristically he did not find a use for it. Even so it became known as the Edison Effect.

Over the years Edison demonstrated the effect to many other leading scientific personalities including Preece, a well-known British electrical engineer and more importantly to Ambrose Fleming, the professor of electrical engineering at University College London. Although no developments were made for a number of years the seed had been sown for later discoveries.

More Developments

Like Edison, Fleming was also fascinated by the effect and performed some experiments around the idea. For example in 1889 he had some bulbs made up for him by the Ediswan Company in the UK. Using these bulbs he reproduced the Edison Effect, although again this was performed using a steady state charge. It was not until a few years later that he observed that if an alternating current with a frequency between 80 and 100 Hz was passed through the bulb, then only one half of the cycle was passed. In other words it was rectified to produce a direct current.

At this time there was a lack of understanding about the operation of the device and this prevented further progress from being made. However the situation improved when Sir Joseph Thomson discovered that atoms were made from even smaller particles, one of which was a negatively charged particle, an electron. Accordingly it was quickly realised that it was electrons that were being emitted from the heated filament in the bulb, and it also provided the reason why they were attracted to an electrode with a positive charge.

Fleming's oscillation valve

In addition to his work at University College London, Fleming also acted as a consultant to the Marconi, who at this time was rapidly increasing the distances over which wireless signals could be used for communication. For example, in 1901 he made the first transatlantic transmission, and then sought to improve the performance that could be achieved. Fleming rightly saw that the major limitation in the sensitivity of the receiving equipment was caused back the lack of sensitivity of the detector. At the time coherers and magnetic detectors were used, and both of these instruments were very inefficient.

Fleming decided that he needed to seek ways of improving this situation, and in November 1904 whilst he was walking along Gower Street in the West End of London, he had what he called "sudden very happy thought". He wondered if the Edison Effect could be used to rectify what he called the "feeble to and fro motions of electricity from an aerial wire". Fleming instructed his assistant to set up an experiment and to their great exhilaration they were quickly able to prove that the idea worked.

The concept of a diode vacuum tube

Concept of the diode vacuum tube

Fleming called his new invention an "oscillation valve" because it acted in a similar way to a valve in a pump that allows gas or water to move in only one direction. He patented the idea that was clearly a major step forwards in wireless technology. Even though the vacuum tube was still in its infancy it was still a major improvement over the coherer or magnetic detectors that were available at the time.

Despite its clear advantage over other detectors, Fleming's oscillation valve or vacuum tube was not widely used. Valves or tubes were difficult and expensive to make and their heaters consumed large amounts of power and this had to be supplied by expensive batteries. Additionally some cheaper devices were discovered in 1906. Devices that were forerunners of the Cat's Whisker detectors that were used in crystal sets until the mid-1920s were discovered. In fact two different patents were filed, one by Ferdinand Braun for a crystal detector using hydrated crystals of manganese oxide and the other by H. Dunwoody for a crystal detector using carborundum. These devices had many limitations but they were very much cheaper than Fleming's oscillation valve and as a result they were quickly adopted.

The Audion

Even though crystal detectors were very successful, several people continued to investigate whether they could develop thermionic or vacuum tube technology whilst avoiding any infringement of Fleming's patent. It was de Forest, an American who had been working on a variety of areas associated with wireless who made the next and crucial vacuum tube development. He had been researching Fleming's diode valve and having investigated the idea he took out some patents for improvements in 1905 and 1906 where he introduced a third electrode. However in 1907 he took out a patent for a three-electrode device where the additional electrode which was placed between the anode and cathode had a fine grid structure. He called this device his Audion which he used as a leaky grid detector, not realising its full potential.

It was not until 1911 that the vacuum tube was used as an amplifier. After this discovery people were quick to try to exploit it. De Forest built an amplifier using three Audions and demonstrated it to the telephone company A.T & T. Although the performance was poor they saw its potential and soon started to build repeaters using vacuum tubes which they had improved. Naturally as soon as the tube was used as an amplifier, people were quickly able to use it as an oscillator. Indeed, one of the problems soon encountered was difficulties in preventing oscillations in view of the high values of grid anode capacitance.

A triode vacuum tube

An early example of a triode valve or vacuum tube.
Note the brass base and the four pins for connection to the outside world

With the first valves or tubes now available, at least in the laboratory, the way was set to further develop the technology and improve their performance.

By Ian Poole

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