History of Vacuum Tubes



A new technology emerged on November 16, 1904 that would open the path to development of modern electronics. The vacuum tube was first invented by British engineer, John Ambrose Fleming who patented the first rectifying diode thermionic valve - vacuum tube. This breakthrough birthed a new era of electronic technological development across various fields of science and technology.


The first computers were built with vacuum tubes and were of enormous size and weighed many tons. The Colossus, the original computer was built by British Bletchley Park. It was a device for breaking German and Japanese codes during World War II. The most sophisticated unit deployed had more than 2400 vacuum tubes of various sort that each required replacement on a regular basis.


Though the vacuum tube has been gradually replaced in many electronic components with the transistor, invented in 1947, vacuum tubes are still found in many modern cutting edge technologies such as scientific instruments, medical treatment devices and even in the space program. Yes, you read correctly. In very recent years NASA is bridging eras of technological achievement with development of the tiny 460GHz vacuum transistor - which would perhaps be better named a ‘vacuum tube transistor.’


In recent years NASA has chosen this direction after calculating that modern computer science has approached the threshold of how far silicon transistors can be shrunk and also that advancement of increase in performance speeds is plateauing at a few gigahertz. NASA Ames Research Center’s new transistor is a nanometer-scale vacuum tube transistor that achieved speeds up to 460GHz in its initial testing in 2014.


Vacuum tubes were used in radios from the beginning and until the early 50’s when RCA and Texas Instruments began manufacturing the first transistor radios which eventually ended advancement of radio technology based on vacuum tube architecture. Audio equipment is the industry over the decades which has been most closely associated with vacuum tubes. Though many modern guitar amps are now made with transistors, still at all points in the history of guitar amplifiers the premium models have used vacuum tubes for the warm and full body sound only achievable playing through a tube amp.


Many high end recording studio components, such as audio compressors and preamps have also continuously been made with vacuum tubes over the decades. It is a given in the music industry that there is no other way to give a singer or an instrument as full and warm of sound quality than by using in-line components that incorporate vacuum tubes to enhance the source signal.


Home audio enthusiasts in the know have also kept vacuum tubes alive insisting on the highest in fidelity standards that can only be enjoyed listening to music through a vacuum tube amplifier. In recent years tube-type hi-fi/stereo amplifiers have been making a strong come back and a new generation is discovering a technological gem of the past that perhaps will never be fully outdated or made obsolete.


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