What is a valve ?

Valve in parts

Valve is a Brittish English term for Electronic Valve or more used by Brimar, Thermonic Valve. The US-English term, Electron tube, is more common, but since Sweden is closer to UK on the map, we decided to use Brittish english

Edison effect bulb

When the lamp inventor had a problem with a lamp causing soot in the bulb, he put in an extra electrode for it to attact soot. He was amazed when he found that a current was going from the electrode. When positive woltage was applied, current was floating from the electode to negative voltage on filament. But when negative voltage was applied, no current. The diode was invented ! The new electrode was called Anode, and the negative connection on filement, Cathode.

In year 1906, Lee de Forest put in a grid between the Anode and the Cathode. When negative voltage was applied, the the voltage on the amplifier was amplified. The triode was invented!

After that, valve functions with up to eight grids was made, called Octode.This type of valve is mostly used in radio circuits as frequency mixer.

Some TV-valves.

Text from Wikipedia

The type known as a thermionic valve uses the phenomenon of thermionic emission of electrons from a heated cathode and is used for a number of fundamental electronic functions such as signal amplification and current rectification.

Non-thermionic types, such as a vacuum photovalve however, achieve electron emission through the photoelectric effect, and are used for such as the detection of light levels. In both types, the electrons are accelerated from the cathode to the anode by the electric field in the valve.

The simplest valve, the diode invented in 1904 by John Ambrose Fleming, contains only a heated electron-emitting cathode and an anode. Current can only flow in one direction through the device from the cathode to the anode. Adding one or more control grids within the valve allows the current between the cathode and anode to be controlled by the voltage on the grid or grids. These devices became a key component of electronic circuits for the first half of the twentieth century. They were crucial to the development of radio, television, radar, sound recording and reproduction, long distance telephone networks, and analogue and early digital computers. Although some applications had used earlier technologies such as the spark gap transmitter for radio or mechanical computers for computing, it was the invention of the thermionic valve that made these technologies widespread and practical, and created the discipline of electronics.

In the 1940s the invention of semiconductor devices made it possible to produce solid-state devices, which are smaller, more efficient, reliable and durable, and cheaper than thermionic valves. From the mid-1960s, thermionic valves were then being replaced by the transistor. However, the cathode-ray valve (CRT) remained the basis for television monitors and oscilloscopes until the early 21st century. Thermionic valves still have some applications, such as the magnetron used in microwave ovens, and certain high-frequency amplifiers.

Not all electronic circuit valves/electron valves are valves. Gas-filled valves are similar devices, but containing a gas, typically at low pressure, which exploit phenomena related to electric discharge in gases, usually without a heater.


One classification of thermionic valves is by the number of active electrodes. A device with two active elements is a diode, usually used for rectification. Devices with three elements are triodes used for amplification and switching. Additional electrodes create tetrodes, pentodes, and so forth, which have multiple additional functions made possible by the additional controllable electrodes.

Other classifications are:

by frequency range (audio, radio, VHF, UHF, microwave)
by power rating (small-signal, audio power, high-power radio transmitting)
by cathode/filament type (indirectly heated, directly heated) and Warm-up time (including "bright-emitter" or "dull-emitter")
by characteristic curves design (e.g., sharp- versus remote-cutoff in some pentodes)
by application (receiving valves, transmitting valves, amplifying or switching, rectification, mixing)
specialized parameters (long life, very low microphonic sensitivity and low-noise audio amplification, rugged/military versions)
specialized functions (light or radiation detectors, video imaging valves)
valves used to display information (Nixie valves, "magic eye" valves, Vacuum fluorescent displays, CRTs)

valves have different functions, such as cathode ray valves which create a beam of electrons for display purposes (such as the television picture valve) in addition to more specialized functions such as electron microscopy and electron beam lithography. X-ray valves are also valves. Photovalves and photomultipliers rely on electron flow through a vacuum, though in those cases electron emission from the cathode depends on energy from photons rather than thermionic emission. Since these sorts of "valves" have functions other than electronic amplification and rectification they are described in their own articles.


Diode: electrons from the hot cathode flow towards the positive anode, but not vice versa
Triode: voltage applied to the grid controls anode current.

A valve consists of two or more electrodes in a vacuum inside an airtight envelope. Most valves have glass envelopes with a glass-to-metal seal based on kovar sealable borosilicate glasses, though ceramic and metal envelopes (atop insulating bases) have been used. The electrodes are attached to leads which pass through the envelope via an airtight seal. Most valves have a limited lifetime, due to the filament or heater burning out or other failure modes, so they are made as replaceable units; the electrode leads connect to pins on the valve's base which plug into a valve socket. valves were a frequent cause of failure in electronic equipment, and consumers were expected to be able to replace valves themselves. In addition to the base terminals, some valves had an electrode terminating at a top cap. The principal reason for doing this was to avoid leakage resistance through the valve base, particularly for the high impedance grid input. The bases were commonly made with phenolic insulation which performs poorly as an insulator in humid conditions. Other reasons for using a top cap include improving stability by reducing grid-to-anode capacitance, improved high-frequency performance, keeping a very high anode voltage away from lower voltages, and accommodating one more electrode than allowed by the base. There was even an occasional design that had two top cap connections.

The earliest valves evolved from incandescent light bulbs, containing a filament sealed in an evacuated glass envelope. When hot, the filament releases electrons into the vacuum, a process called thermionic emission, originally known as the "Edison Effect". A second electrode, the anode or anode, will attract those electrons if it is at a more positive voltage. The result is a net flow of electrons from the filament to anode. However, electrons cannot flow in the reverse direction because the anode is not heated and does not emit electrons. The filament (cathode) has a dual function: it emits electrons when heated; and, together with the anode, it creates an electric field due to the potential difference between them. Such a valve with only two electrodes is termed a diode, and is used for rectification. Since current can only pass in one direction, such a diode (or rectifier) will convert alternating current (AC) to pulsating DC. Diodes can therefore be used in a DC power supply, as a demodulator of amplitude modulated (AM) radio signals and for similar functions.

Early valves used the filament as the cathode; this is called a "directly heated" valve. Most modern valves are "indirectly heated" by a "heater" element inside a metal valve that is the cathode. The heater is electrically isolated from the surrounding cathode and simply serves to heat the cathode sufficiently for thermionic emission of electrons. The electrical isolation allows all the valves' heaters to be supplied from a common circuit (which can be AC without inducing hum) while allowing the cathodes in different valves to operate at different voltages. H. J. Round invented the indirectly heated valve around 1913.

The filaments require constant and often considerable power, even when amplifying signals at the microwatt level. Power is also dissipated when the electrons from the cathode slam into the anode and heat it; this can occur even in an idle amplifier due to quiescent currents necessary to ensure linearity and low distortion. In a power amplifier, this heating can be considerable and can destroy the valve if driven beyond its safe limits. Since the valve contains a vacuum, the anodes in most small and medium power valves are cooled by radiation through the glass envelope. In some special high power applications, the anode forms part of the vacuum envelope to conduct heat to an external heat sink, usually cooled by a blower, or water-jacket.

Klystrons and magnetrons often operate their anodes (called collectors in klystrons) at ground potential to facilitate cooling, particularly with water, without high-voltage insulation. These valves instead operate with high negative voltages on the filament and cathode.

Except for diodes, additional electrodes are positioned between the cathode and the anode. These electrodes are referred to as grids as they are not solid electrodes but sparse elements through which electrons can pass on their way to the anode. The valve is then known as a triode, tetrode, pentode, etc., depending on the number of grids. A triode has three electrodes: the anode, cathode, and one grid, and so on. The first grid, known as the control grid, (and sometimes other grids) transforms the diode into a voltage-controlled device: the voltage applied to the control grid affects the current between the cathode and the anode. When held negative with respect to the cathode, the control grid creates an electric field which repels electrons emitted by the cathode, thus reducing or even stopping the current between cathode and anode. As long as the control grid is negative relative to the cathode, essentially no current flows into it, yet a change of several volts on the control grid is sufficient to make a large difference in the anode current, possibly changing the output by hundreds of volts (depending on the circuit). The solid-state device which operates most like the pentode valve is the junction field-effect transistor (JFET), although valves typically operate at over a hundred volts, unlike most semiconductors in most applications.

History and development

The 19th century saw increasing research with evacuated valves, such as the Geissler and Crookes valves. The many scientists and inventors who experimented with such valves include Thomas Edison, Eugen Goldstein, Nikola Tesla, and Johann Wilhelm Hittorf. With the exception of early light bulbs, such valves were only used in scientific research or as novelties. The groundwork laid by these scientists and inventors, however, was critical to the development of subsequent valve technology.

Although thermionic emission was originally reported in 1873 by Frederick Guthrie, it was Thomas Edison's apparently independent discovery of the phenomenon in 1883 that became well known. Although Edison was aware of the unidirectional property of current flow between the filament and the anode, his interest concentrated on the sensitivity of the anode current to the current through the filament (and thus filament temperature). Little practical use was ever made of this property (however early radios often implemented volume controls through varying the filament current of amplifying valves). It was only years later that John Ambrose Fleming utilized the rectifying property of the diode valve to detect (demodulate) radio signals, a substantial improvement on the early cat's-whisker detector already used for rectification.

However actual amplification by a valve only became practical with Lee De Forest's 1907 invention of the three-terminal "audion" valve, a crude form of what was to become the triode. Being essentially the first electronic amplifier, such valves were instrumental in long-distance telephony (such as the first coast-to-coast telephone line in the US) and public address systems, and introduced a far superior and versatile technology for use in radio transmitters and receivers. The electronics revolution of the 20th century arguably began with the invention of the triode valve.


Flemming valves

The English physicist John Ambrose Fleming worked as an engineering consultant for firms including Edison Swan, Edison Telephone and the Marconi Company. In 1904, as a result of experiments conducted on Edison effect bulbs imported from the United States, he developed a device he called an "oscillation valve" (because it passes current in only one direction). The heated filament, was capable of thermionic emission of electrons that would flow to the anode when it was at a positive voltage with respect to the heated cathode. Electrons, however, could not pass in the reverse direction because the anode was not heated and thus not capable of thermionic emission of electrons.

Later known as the Fleming valve, it could be used as a rectifier of alternating current and as a radio wave detector. This greatly improved the crystal set which rectified the radio signal using an early solid-state diode based on a crystal and a so-called cat's whisker, an adjustable point contact. Unlike modern semiconductors, such a diode required painstaking adjustment of the contact to the crystal in order for it to rectify.

The valve was relatively immune to vibration, and thus vastly superior on shipboard duty, particularly for navy ships with the shock of weapon fire commonly knocking the sensitive but delicate galena off its sensitive point (the valve was in general no more sensitive as a radio detector, but was adjustment free). The diode valve was a reliable alternative for detecting radio signals.

As electronic engineering advanced, notably during World War II, this function of a diode came to be considered as one type of demodulation. While firmly established by history, the term "detector" is not of itself descriptive, and should be considered outdated.

Higher power diode valves or power rectifiers found their way into power supply applications until they were eventually replaced first by selenium, and later, by silicon rectifiers in the 1960s.


First triode
The first triode, the De Forest Audion, invented in 1906.

Triodes as they evolved over 40 years of valve manufacture, from the RE16 in 1918 to a 1960s era miniature valve Triode symbol. From top to bottom: anode, control grid, cathode, heater (filament)

Originally, the only use for valves in radio circuits was for rectification, not amplification. In 1906, Robert von Lieben filed for a patent for a cathode ray valve which included magnetic deflection. This could be used for amplifying audio signals and was intended for use in telephony equipment. He would later help refine the triode valve.

However, Lee De Forest is credited with inventing the triode valve in 1907 while experimenting to improve his original (diode) Audion. By placing an additional electrode between the filament (cathode) and anode, he discovered the ability of the resulting device to amplify signals. As the voltage applied to the control grid (or simply "grid") was lowered from the cathode's voltage to somewhat more negative voltages, the amount of current from the filament to the anode would be reduced.

The negative electrostatic field created by the grid in the vicinity of the cathode would inhibit passage of emitted electrons and reduce the current to the anode. Thus, a few volt difference at the grid would make a large change in the anode current and could lead to a much larger voltage change at the anode; the result was voltage and power amplification. In 1908, De Forest was granted a patent (U.S. Patent 879,532) for such a three-electrode version of his original Audion for use as an electronic amplifier in radio communications. This eventually became known as the triode. General Electric Company Pliotron, Science History Institute

De Forest's original device was made with conventional vacuum technology. The vacuum was not a "hard vacuum" but rather left a very small amount of residual gas. The physics behind the device's operation was also not settled. The residual gas would cause a blue glow (visible ionization) when the anode voltage was high (above about 60 volts). In 1912, De Forest brought the Audion to Harold Arnold in AT&T's engineering department. Arnold recommended that AT&T purchase the patent, and AT&T followed his recommendation. Arnold developed high-valves which were tested in the summer of 1913 on AT&T's long distance network. The high-valves could operate at high anode voltages without a blue glow.

Finnish inventor Eric Tigerstedt significantly improved on the original triode design in 1914, while working on his sound-on-film process in Berlin, Germany. Tigerstedt's innovation was to make the electrodes concentric cylinders with the cathode at the centre, thus greatly increasing the collection of emitted electrons at the anode.

Irving Langmuir at the General Electric research laboratory (Schenectady, New York) had improved Wolfgang Gaede's high-vacuum diffusion pump and used it to settle the question of thermionic emission and conduction in a vacuum. Consequently, General Electric started producing hard vacuum triodes (which were branded Pliotrons) in 1915. Langmuir patented the hard vacuum triode, but De Forest and AT&T successfully asserted priority and invalidated the patent.

Pliotrons were closely followed by the French type 'TM' and later the English type 'R' which were in widespread use by the allied military by 1916. Historically, vacuum levels in production valves typically ranged from 10 µPa down to 10 nPa.

The triode and its derivatives (tetrodes and pentodes) are transconductance devices, in which the controlling signal applied to the grid is a voltage, and the resulting amplified signal appearing at the anode is a current. Compare this to the behavior of the bipolar junction transistor, in which the controlling signal is a current and the output is also a current.

For valves, transconductance or mutual conductance (gm) is defined as the change in the anode/cathode current divided by the corresponding change in the grid to cathode voltage, with a constant anode to cathode voltage. Typical values of gm for a small-signal valve are 1 to 10 millisiemens. It is one of the three 'constants' of a valve, the other two being its gain μ and anode resistance Rp or Ra. The Van der Bijl equation defines their relationship as follows: g m = μ R p {\displaystyle gm={\mu \over R_{p}}} gm={\mu \over R_{p}}

The non-linear operating characteristic of the triode caused early valve audio amplifiers to exhibit harmonic distortion at low volumes. Plotting anode current as a function of applied grid voltage, it was seen that there was a range of grid voltages for which the transfer characteristics were approximately linear.

To use this range, a negative bias voltage had to be applied to the grid to position the DC operating point in the linear region. This was called the idle condition, and the anode current at this point the "idle current". The controlling voltage was superimposed onto the bias voltage, resulting in a linear variation of anode current in response to both positive and negative variation of the input voltage around that point.

This concept is called grid bias. Many early radio sets had a third battery called the "C battery" (unrelated to the present-day C cell, for which the letter denotes its size and shape). The C battery's positive terminal was connected to the cathode of the valves (or "ground" in most circuits) and whose negative terminal supplied this bias voltage to the grids of the valves.

Later circuits, after valves were made with heaters isolated from their cathodes, used cathode biasing, avoiding the need for a separate negative power supply. For cathode biasing, a relatively low-value resistor is connected between the cathode and ground. This makes the cathode positive with respect to the grid, which is at ground potential for DC.

However C batteries continued to be included in some equipment even when the "A" and "B" batteries had been replaced by power from the AC mains. That was possible because there was essentially no current draw on these batteries; they could thus last for many years (often longer than all the valves) without requiring replacement.

When triodes were first used in radio transmitters and receivers, it was found that tuned amplification stages had a tendency to oscillate unless their gain was very limited. This was due to the parasitic capacitance between the anode (the amplifier's output) and the control grid (the amplifier's input), known as the Miller capacitance.

Eventually the technique of neutralization was developed whereby the RF transformer connected to the anode (anode) would include an additional winding in the opposite phase. This winding would be connected back to the grid through a small capacitor, and when properly adjusted would cancel the Miller capacitance. This technique was employed and led to the success of the Neutrodyne radio during the 1920s. However, neutralization required careful adjustment and proved unsatisfactory when used over a wide range of frequencies.

Tetrodes and pentodes

Tetrode symbol

To combat the stability problems and limited voltage gain due to the Miller effect, the physicist Walter H. Schottky invented the tetrode valve in 1919. He showed that the addition of a second grid, located between the control grid and the anode (anode), known as the screen grid, could solve these problems. ("Screen" in this case refers to electrical "screening" or shielding, not physical construction: all "grid" electrodes in between the cathode and anode are "screens" of some sort rather than solid electrodes since they must allow for the passage of electrons directly from the cathode to the anode). A positive voltage slightly lower than the anode voltage was applied to it, and was bypassed (for high frequencies) to ground with a capacitor. This arrangement decoupled the anode and the control grid, essentially eliminating the Miller capacitance and its associated problems. Consequently, higher voltage gains from a single valve became possible, reducing the number of valves required in many circuits. This two-grid valve is called a tetrode, meaning four active electrodes, and was common by 1926.

At certain values of anode voltage and current, the tetrode characteristic curves are kinked due to secondary emission.

However, the tetrode had one new problem. In any valve, electrons strike the anode with sufficient energy to cause the emission of electrons from its surface. In a triode this so-called secondary emission of electrons is not important since they are simply re-captured by the more positive anode. But in a tetrode they can be captured by the screen grid (thus also acting as an anode) since it is also at a high voltage, thus robbing them from the anode current and reducing the amplification of the device. Since secondary electrons can outnumber the primary electrons, in the worst case, particularly as the anode voltage dips below the screen voltage, the anode current can decrease with increasing anode voltage. This is the so-called "tetrode kink" and is an example of negative resistance which can itself cause instability.The otherwise undesirable negative resistance was exploited to produce a simple oscillator circuit only requiring connection of the anode to a resonant LC circuit to oscillate; this was effective over a wide frequency range. The so-called dynatron oscillator thus operated on the same principle of negative resistance as the tunnel diode oscillator many years later. Another undesirable consequence of secondary emission is that in extreme cases enough charge can flow to the screen grid to overheat and destroy it. Later tetrodes had anodes treated to reduce secondary emission; earlier ones such as the type 77 sharp-cutoff pentode connected as a tetrode made better dynatrons.

The solution was to add another grid between the screen grid and the main anode, called the suppressor grid (since it suppressed secondary emission current toward the screen grid). This grid was held at the cathode (or "ground") voltage and its negative voltage (relative to the anode) electrostatically repelled secondary electrons so that they would be collected by the anode after all. This three-grid valve is called a pentode, meaning five electrodes. The pentode was invented in 1926 by Bernard D. H. Tellegen and became generally favored over the simple tetrode. Pentodes are made in two classes: those with the suppressor grid wired internally to the cathode (e.g. EL84/6BQ5) and those with the suppressor grid wired to a separate pin for user access (e.g. 803, 837). An alternative solution for power applications is the beam tetrode or "beam power valve", discussed below.

Multifunction and multisection valves

Heptode symbol
The pentagrid converter contained five grids between the cathode and the anode.

Superheterodyne receivers require a local oscillator and mixer, combined in the function of a single pentagrid converter valve. Various alternatives such as using a combination of a triode with a hexode and even an octode have been used for this purpose. The additional grids include both control grids (at a low potential) and screen grids (at a high voltage). Many designs used such a screen grid as an additional anode to provide feedback for the oscillator function, whose current was added to that of the incoming radio frequency signal. The pentagrid converter thus became widely used in AM receivers, including the miniature valve version of the "All American Five". Octodes, such as the 7A8, were rarely used in the United States, but much more common in Europe, particularly in battery operated radios where the lower power consumption was an advantage.

To further reduce the cost and complexity of radio equipment, two separate structures (triode and pentode for instance) could be combined in the bulb of a single multisection valve. An early example was the Loewe 3NF. This 1920s device had three triodes in a single glass envelope together with all the fixed capacitors and resistors required to make a complete radio receiver. As the Loewe set had only one valve socket, it was able to substantially undercut the competition, since, in Germany, state tax was levied by the number of sockets. However, reliability was compromised, and production costs for the valve were much greater. In a sense, these were akin to integrated circuits. In the United States, Cleartron briefly produced the "Multivalve" triple triode for use in the Emerson Baby Grand receiver. This Emerson set also had a single valve socket, but because it used a four-pin base, the additional element connections were made on a "mezzanine" platform at the top of the valve base.

By 1940 multisection valves had become commonplace. There were constraints, however, due to patents and other licensing considerations (see British Valve Association). Constraints due to the number of external pins (leads) often forced the functions to share some of those external connections such as their cathode connections (in addition to the heater connection). The RCA Type 55 was a double diode triode used as a detector, automatic gain control rectifier and audio preamplifier in early AC powered radios. These sets often included the 53 Dual Triode Audio Output. Another early type of multi-section valve, the 6SN7, is a "dual triode" which performs the functions of two triode valves, while taking up half as much space and costing less. The 12AX7 is a dual "high mu" (high voltage gain) triode in a miniature enclosure, and became widely used in audio signal amplifiers, instruments, and guitar amplifiers.

The introduction of the miniature valve base (see below) which could have 9 pins, more than previously available, allowed other multi-section valves to be introduced, such as the 6GH8/ECF82 triode-pentode, quite popular in television receivers. The desire to include even more functions in one envelope resulted in the General Electric Compactron which had 12 pins. A typical example, the 6AG11, contained two triodes and two diodes.

Some otherwise conventional valves do not fall into standard categories; the 6AR8, 6JH8 and 6ME8 had several common grids, followed by a pair of beam deflection electrodes which deflected the current towards either of two anodes. It was sometimes known as the 'sheet beam' valve, and was used in some color TV sets for color demodulation. The similar 7360 was popular as a balanced SSB (de)modulator.

Beam power valves

The beam power valve is usually a tetrode with the addition of beam-forming electrodes, which take the place of the suppressor grid. These angled anodes (not to be confused with the anode) focus the electron stream onto certain spots on the anode which can withstand the heat generated by the impact of massive numbers of electrons, while also providing pentode behavior. The positioning of the elements in a beam power valve uses a design called "critical-distance geometry", which minimizes the "tetrode kink", anode to control grid capacitance, screen grid current, and secondary emission from the anode, thus increasing power conversion efficiency. The control grid and screen grid are also wound with the same pitch, or number of wires per inch. The two grids are positioned so that the control grid creates "sheets" of electrons which pass between the screen-grid wires. They're aligned to be equidistant from, say, the bottom of the valve.

Aligning the grid wires also helps to reduce screen current, which represents wasted energy. This design helps to overcome some of the practical barriers to designing high-power, high-efficiency power valves. EMI engineers Cabot Bull and Sidney Rodda developed the design which became the 6L6, the first popular beam power valve, introduced by RCA in 1936 and later corresponding valves in Europe the KT66, KT77 and KT88 made by the Marconi-Osram Valve subsidiary of GEC (the KT standing for "Kinkless Tetrode").

"Pentode operation" of beam power valves is often described in manufacturers' handbooks and data sheets, resulting in some confusion in terminology. They are not pentodes, of course.

Variations of the 6L6 design are still widely used in valve guitar amplifiers, making it one of the longest-lived electronic device families in history. Similar design strategies are used in the construction of large ceramic power tetrodes used in radio transmitters.

Beam power valves can be connected as triodes for improved audio tonal quality but in triode mode deliver significantly reduced power output.

Gas-filled valves

Voltage regulator

Gas-filled valves such as discharge valves and cold cathode valves are not hard valves, though are always filled with gas at less than sea-level atmospheric pressure. Types such as the voltage-regulator valve and thyratron resemble hard valves and fit in sockets designed for valves. Their distinctive orange, red, or purple glow during operation indicates the presence of gas; electrons flowing in a vacuum do not produce light within that region. These types may still be referred to as "electron valves" as they do perform electronic functions. High-power rectifiers use mercury vapor to achieve a lower forward voltage drop than high-valves.

Miniature valves

Early valves used a metal or glass envelope atop an insulating bakelite base. In 1938 a technique was developed to use an all-glass construction with the pins fused in the glass base of the envelope. This was used in the design of a much smaller valve outline, known as the miniature valve, having 7 or 9 pins. Making valves smaller reduced the voltage where they could safely operate, and also reduced the power dissipation of the filament. Miniature valves became predominant in consumer applications such as radio receivers and hi-fi amplifiers. However the larger older styles continued to be used especially as higher power rectifiers, in higher power audio output stages and as transmitting valves.

CV4501 subminiature

Subminiature valves with a size roughly that of half a cigarette were used in hearing-aid amplifiers. These valves did not have pins plugging into a socket but were soldered in place. The "acorn valve" (named due to its shape) was also very small, as was the metal-cased RCA nuvistor from 1959, about the size of a thimble. The nuvistor was developed to compete with the early transistors and operated at higher frequencies than those early transistors could. The small size supported especially high-frequency operation; nuvistors were used in aircraft radio transceivers, UHF television tuners, and some HiFi FM radio tuners (Sansui 500A) until replaced by high-frequency capable transistors.

Improvements in construction and performance

The earliest valves strongly resembled incandescent light bulbs and were made by lamp manufacturers, who had the equipment needed to manufacture glass envelopes and the vacuum pumps required to evacuate the enclosures. De Forest used Heinrich Geissler's mercury displacement pump, which left behind a partial vacuum. The development of the diffusion pump in 1915 and improvement by Irving Langmuir led to the development of high-valves. After World War I, specialized manufacturers using more economical construction methods were set up to fill the growing demand for broadcast receivers. Bare tungsten filaments operated at a temperature of around 2200 °C. The development of oxide-coated filaments in the mid-1920s reduced filament operating temperature to a dull red heat (around 700 °C), which in turn reduced thermal distortion of the valve structure and allowed closer spacing of valve elements. This in turn improved valve gain, since the gain of a triode is inversely proportional to the spacing between grid and cathode. Bare tungsten filaments remain in use in small transmitting valves but are brittle and tend to fracture if handled roughly – e.g. in the postal services. These valves are best suited to stationary equipment where impact and vibration is not present.

Indirectly heated cathodes

The desire to power electronic equipment using AC mains power faced a difficulty with respect to the powering of the valves' filaments, as these were also the cathode of each valve. Powering the filaments directly from a power transformer introduced mains-frequency (50 or 60 Hz) hum into audio stages. The invention of the "equipotential cathode" reduced this problem, with the filaments being powered by a balanced AC power transformer winding having a grounded center tap.

A superior solution, and one which allowed each cathode to "float" at a different voltage, was that of the indirectly heated cathode: a cylinder of oxide-coated nickel acted as electron-emitting cathode, and was electrically isolated from the filament inside it. Indirectly heated cathodes enable the cathode circuit to be separated from the heater circuit. The filament, no longer electrically connected to the valve's electrodes, became simply known as a "heater", and could as well be powered by AC without any introduction of hum. In the 1930s indirectly heated cathode valves became widespread in equipment using AC power. Directly heated cathode valves continued to be widely used in battery-powered equipment as their filaments required considerably less power than the heaters required with indirectly heated cathodes.

Valves designed for high gain audio applications may have twisted heater wires to cancel out stray electric fields, fields that could induce objectionable hum into the program material.

Heaters may be energized with either alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC). DC is often used where low hum is required.

Use in electronic computers

The 1946 ENIAC computer used 17,468 valves and consumed 150 kW of power

Vacuum valves used as switches made electronic computing possible for the first time, but the cost and relatively short mean time to failure of valves were limiting factors. "The common wisdom was that valves—which, like light bulbs, contained a hot glowing filament—could never be used satisfactorily in large numbers, for they were unreliable, and in a large installation too many would fail in too short a time". Tommy Flowers, who later designed Colossus, "discovered that, so long as valves were switched on and left on, they could operate reliably for very long periods, especially if their 'heaters' were run on a reduced current". In 1934 Flowers built a successful experimental installation using over 3,000 valves in small independent modules; when a valve failed, it was possible to switch off one module and keep the others going, thereby reducing the risk of another valve failure being caused; this installation was accepted by the Post Office (who operated telephone exchanges). Flowers was also a pioneer of using valves as very fast (compared to electromechanical devices) electronic switches. Later work confirmed that valve unreliability was not as serious an issue as generally believed; the 1946 ENIAC, with over 17,000 valves, had a valve failure (which took 15 minutes to locate) on average every two days. The quality of the valves was a factor, and the diversion of skilled people during the Second World War lowered the general quality of valves. During the war Colossus was instrumental in breaking German codes. After the war, development continued with valve-based computers including, military computers ENIAC and Whirlwind, the Ferranti Mark 1 (the first commercially available electronic computer), and UNIVAC I, also available commercially.


Flowers's Colossus and its successor Colossus Mk2 were built by the British during World War II to substantially speed up the task of breaking the German high level Lorenz encryption. Using about 1,500 valves (2,400 for Mk2), Colossus replaced an earlier machine based on relay and switch logic (the Heath Robinson). Colossus was able to break in a matter of hours messages that had previously taken several weeks; it was also much more reliable. Colossus was the first use of valves working in concert on such a large scale for a single machine.

Once Colossus was built and installed, it ran continuously, powered by dual redundant diesel generators, the wartime mains supply being considered too unreliable. The only time it was switched off was for conversion to Mk2, which added more valves. Another nine Colossus Mk2s were built. Each Mk2 consumed 15 kilowatts; most of the power was for the valve heaters.

A Colossus reconstruction was switched on in 1996; it was upgraded to Mk2 configuration in 2004; it found the key for a wartime German ciphertext in 2007.

Whirlwind and "special-quality" valves

To meet the reliability requirements of the 1951 US digital computer Whirlwind, "special-quality" valves with extended life, and a long-lasting cathode in particular, were produced. The problem of short lifetime was traced to evaporation of silicon, used in the tungsten alloy to make the heater wire easier to draw. Elimination of silicon from the heater wire alloy (and more frequent replacement of the wire drawing dies) allowed production of valves that were reliable enough for the Whirlwind project. The valves developed for Whirlwind were later used in the giant SAGE air-defense computer system. SAGE computers were dual installations, with one operating, and the other in standby. To locate potential valve failures in the standby computer, heater voltages were reduced, which caused failures of valves which would otherwise fail in service. These computers continued in service years after other valve computers had been superseded.

High-purity nickel tubing and cathode coatings free of materials that can poison emission (such as silicates and aluminum) also contribute to long cathode life. The first such "computer valve" was Sylvania's 7AK7 of 1948. Computers were the first valve devices to run valves at cutoff (enough negative grid voltage to make them cease conduction) for quite-extended periods of time. When their grids became less negative, they failed to conduct. While hot but non-conductive, an insulating layer ("cathode interface") developed between the nickel sleeve and the oxide coating. What was described above cured this problem.

By the late 1950s it was routine for special-quality small-signal valves to last for hundreds of thousands of hours, if operated conservatively. This increased reliability also made mid-cable amplifiers in submarine cables possible. Heat generation and cooling

High power transmission
The anode of this transmitting triode has been designed to dissipate up to 500 W of heat

A considerable amount of heat is produced when valves operate, both from the filament (heater) but also from the stream of electrons bombarding the anode. In power amplifiers this source of heat will exceed the power due to cathode heating. A few types of valve permit operation with the anodes at a dull red heat; in other types, red heat indicates severe overload.

The requirements for heat removal can significantly change the appearance of high-power valves. High power audio amplifiers and rectifiers required larger envelopes to dissipate heat. Transmitting valves could be much larger still.

Heat escapes the device by black body radiation from the anode as infrared radiation, and by convection of air over the valve envelope. Convection is not possible inside most valves since the anode is surrounded by vacuum.

alves which generate relatively little heat, such as the 1.4-volt filament directly heated valves designed for use in battery-powered equipment, often have shiny metal anodes. 1T4, 1R5 and 1A7 are examples. Gas-filled valves such as thyratrons may also use a shiny metal anode, since the gas present inside the valve allows for heat convection from the anode to the glass enclosure.

The anode is often treated to make its surface emit more infrared energy. High-power amplifier valves are designed with external anodes which can be cooled by convection, forced air or circulating water. The water-cooled 80 kg, 1.25 MW 8974 is among the largest commercial valves available today.

In a water-cooled valve, the anode voltage appears directly on the cooling water surface, thus requiring the water to be an electrical insulator to prevent high voltage leakage through the cooling water to the radiator system. Water as usually supplied has ions which conduct electricity; deionized water, a good insulator, is required. Such systems usually have a built-in water-conductance monitor which will shut down the high-tension supply if the conductance becomes too high.

The screen grid may also generate considerable heat. Limits to screen grid dissipation, in addition to anode dissipation, are listed for power devices. If these are exceeded then valve failure is likely.

Valve packages

Heat sink transmission valve
High power GS-9B triode transmitting valve with heat sink at bottom.

Most modern valves have glass envelopes, but metal, fused quartz (silica) and ceramic have also been used. A first version of the 6L6 used a metal envelope sealed with glass beads, while a glass disk fused to the metal was used in later versions. Metal and ceramic are used almost exclusively for power valves above 2 kW dissipation. The nuvistor was a modern receiving valve using a very small metal and ceramic package.

The internal elements of valves have always been connected to external circuitry via pins at their base which plug into a socket. Subminiature valves were produced using wire leads rather than sockets, however these were restricted to rather specialized applications. In addition to the connections at the base of the valve, many early triodes connected the grid using a metal cap at the top of the valve; this reduces stray capacitance between the grid and the anode leads. valve caps were also used for the anode connection, particularly in transmitting valves and valves using a very high anode voltage.

High-power valves such as transmitting valves have packages designed more to enhance heat transfer. In some valves, the metal envelope is also the anode. The 4CX1000A is an external anode valve of this sort. Air is blown through an array of fins attached to the anode, thus cooling it. Power valves using this cooling scheme are available up to 150 kW dissipation. Above that level, water or water-vapor cooling are used. The highest-power valve currently available is the Eimac 4CM2500KG, a forced water-cooled power tetrode capable of dissipating 2.5 megawatts. By comparison, the largest power transistor can only dissipate about 1 kilowatt.


The generic name "[thermionic] valve" used in the UK derives from the unidirectional current flow allowed by the earliest device, the thermionic diode emitting electrons from a heated filament, by analogy with a non-return valve in a water pipe.[34] The US names "vacuum tube", "electron tube", and "thermionic valve" all simply describe a tubular envelope which has been evacuated ("vacuum"), has a heater, and controls electron flow.

In many cases manufacturers and the military gave valves designations which said nothing about their purpose (e.g., 1614). In the early days some manufacturers used proprietary names which might convey some information, but only about their products; the KT66 and KT88 were "Kinkless Tetrodes". Later, consumer valves were given names which conveyed some information, with the same name often used generically by several manufacturers. In the US, Radio Electronics Television Manufacturers' Association (RETMA) designations comprise a number, followed by one or two letters, and a number. The first number is the (rounded) heater voltage; the letters designate a particular valve but say nothing about its structure; and the final number is the total number of electrodes (without distinguishing between, say, a valve with many electrodes, or two sets of electrodes in a single envelope—a double triode, for example). For example, the 12AX7 is a double triode (two sets of three electrodes plus heater) with a 12.6V heater (which, as it happens, can also be connected to run from 6.3V). The "AX" has no meaning other than to designate this particular valve according to its characteristics. Similar, but not identical, valves are the 12AD7, 12AE7...12AT7, 12AU7, 12AV7, 12AW7 (rare!), 12AY7, and the 12AZ7.

A system widely used in Europe known as the Mullard–Philips valve designation, also extended to transistors, uses a letter, followed by one or more further letters, and a number. The type designator specifies the heater voltage or current (one letter), the functions of all sections of the valve (one letter per section), the socket type (first digit), and the particular valve (remaining digits). For example, the ECC83 (equivalent to the 12AX7) is a 6.3V (E) double triode (CC) with a miniature base (8). In this system special-quality valves (e.g., for long-life computer use) are indicated by moving the number immediately after the first letter: the E83CC is a special-quality equivalent of the ECC83, the E55L a power pentode with no consumer equivalent.

Special-purpose valves

Voltage-regulator valve in operation. Low pressure gas within valve glows due to current flow.

Some special-purpose valves are constructed with particular gases in the envelope. For instance, voltage-regulator valves contain various inert gases such as argon, helium or neon, which will ionize at predictable voltages. The thyratron is a special-purpose valve filled with low-pressure gas or mercury vapor. Like valves, it contains a hot cathode and an anode, but also a control electrode which behaves somewhat like the grid of a triode. When the control electrode starts conduction, the gas ionizes, after which the control electrode can no longer stop the current; the valve "latches" into conduction. Removing anode voltage lets the gas de-ionize, restoring its non-conductive state.

Some thyratrons can carry large currents for their physical size. One example is the miniature type 2D21, often seen in 1950s jukeboxes as control switches for relays. A cold-cathode version of the thyratron, which uses a pool of mercury for its cathode, is called an ignitron; some can switch thousands of amperes. Thyratrons containing hydrogen have a very consistent time delay between their turn-on pulse and full conduction; they behave much like modern silicon-controlled rectifiers, also called thyristors due to their functional similarity to thyratrons. Hydrogen thyratrons have long been used in radar transmitters.

A specialized valve is the krytron, which is used for rapid high-voltage switching. Krytrons are used to initiate the detonations used to set off a nuclear weapon; krytrons are heavily controlled at an international level.

X-ray valves are used in medical imaging among other uses. X-ray valves used for continuous-duty operation in fluoroscopy and CT imaging equipment may use a focused cathode and a rotating anode to dissipate the large amounts of heat thereby generated. These are housed in an oil-filled aluminium housing to provide cooling.

The photomultiplier valve is an extremely sensitive detector of light, which uses the photoelectric effect and secondary emission, rather than thermionic emission, to generate and amplify electrical signals. Nuclear medicine imaging equipment and liquid scintillation counters use photomultiplier valve arrays to detect low-intensity scintillation due to ionizing radiation.

Powering the valve


Batteries provided the voltages required by valves in early radio sets. Three different voltages were generally required, using three different batteries designated as the A, B, and C battery. The "A" battery or LT (low-tension) battery provided the filament voltage. valve heaters were designed for single, double or triple-cell lead-acid batteries, giving nominal heater voltages of 2 V, 4 V or 6 V. In portable radios, dry batteries were sometimes used with 1.5 or 1 V heaters. Reducing filament consumption improved the life span of batteries. By 1955 towards the end of the valve era, valves using only 50 mA down to as little as 10 mA for the heaters had been developed.

The high voltage applied to the anode was provided by the "B" battery or the HT (high-tension) supply or battery. These were generally of dry cell construction and typically came in 22.5-, 45-, 67.5-, 90-, 120- or 135-volt versions.

Batteries for a valve circuit. The C battery is highlighted.

Early sets used a grid bias battery or "C" battery which was connected to provide a negative voltage. Since virtually no current flows through a valve's grid connection, these batteries had very low drain and lasted the longest. Even after AC power supplies became commonplace, some radio sets continued to be built with C batteries, as they would almost never need replacing. However more modern circuits were designed using cathode biasing, eliminating the need for a third power supply voltage; this became practical with valves using indirect heating of the cathode.

The "C battery" for bias is a designation having no relation to the "C cell" battery size.

AC power

"Cheater cord" redirects here. For the three-prong to two-prong mains plug adapter, see Cheater plug.

Battery replacement was a major operating cost for early radio receiver users. The development of the battery eliminator, and, in 1925, batteryless receivers operated by household power, reduced operating costs and contributed to the growing popularity of radio. A power supply using a transformer with several windings, one or more rectifiers (which may themselves be valves), and large filter capacitors provided the required direct current voltages from the alternating current source.

As a cost reduction measure, especially in high-volume consumer receivers, all the valve heaters could be connected in series across the AC supply using heaters requiring the same current and with a similar warm-up time. In one such design, a tap on the valve heater string supplied the 6 volts needed for the dial light. By deriving the high voltage from a half-wave rectifier directly connected to the AC mains, the heavy and costly power transformer was eliminated. This also allowed such receivers to operate on direct current, a so-called AC/DC receiver design. Many different US consumer AM radio manufacturers of the era used a virtually identical circuit, given the nickname All American Five.

Where the mains voltage was in the 100-120V range, this limited voltage proved suitable only for low-power receivers. Television receivers either required a transformer or could use a voltage doubling circuit. Where 230 V nominal mains voltage was used, television receivers as well could dispense with a power transformer.

Transformer-less power supplies required safety precautions in their design to limit the shock hazard to users, such as electrically insulated cabinets and an interlock tying the power cord to the cabinet back, so the line cord was necessarily disconnected if the user or service person opened the cabinet. A cheater cord was a power cord ending in the special socket used by the safety interlock; servicers could then power the device with the hazardous voltages exposed.

To avoid the warm-up delay, "instant on" television receivers passed a small heating current through their valves even when the set was nominally off. At switch on, full heating current was provided and the set would play almost immediately.


One reliability problem of valves with oxide cathodes is the possibility that the cathode may slowly become "poisoned" by gas molecules from other elements in the valve, which reduce its ability to emit electrons. Trapped gases or slow gas leaks can also damage the cathode or cause anode current runaway due to ionization of free gas molecules. Vacuum hardness and proper selection of construction materials are the major influences on valve lifetime. Depending on the material, temperature and construction, the surface material of the cathode may also diffuse onto other elements. The resistive heaters that heat the cathodes may break in a manner similar to incandescent lamp filaments, but rarely do, since they operate at much lower temperatures than lamps.

The heater's failure mode is typically a stress-related fracture of the tungsten wire or at a weld point and generally occurs after accruing many thermal (power on-off) cycles. Tungsten wire has a very low resistance when at room temperature. A negative temperature coefficient device, such as a thermistor, may be incorporated in the equipment's heater supply or a ramp-up circuit may be employed to allow the heater or filaments to reach operating temperature more gradually than if powered-up in a step-function. Low-cost radios had valves with heaters connected in series, with a total voltage equal to that of the line (mains). Some receivers made before World War II had series-string heaters with total voltage less than that of the mains. Some had a resistance wire running the length of the power cord to drop the voltage to the valves. Others had series resistors made like regular valves; they were called ballast valves.

Following World War II, valves intended to be used in series heater strings were redesigned to all have the same ("controlled") warm-up time. Earlier designs had quite-different thermal time constants. The audio output stage, for instance, had a larger cathode, and warmed up more slowly than lower-powered valves. The result was that heaters that warmed up faster also temporarily had higher resistance, because of their positive temperature coefficient. This disproportionate resistance caused them to temporarily operate with heater voltages well above their ratings, and shortened their life.

Another important reliability problem is caused by air leakage into the valve. Usually oxygen in the air reacts chemically with the hot filament or cathode, quickly ruining it. Designers developed valve designs that sealed reliably. This was why most valves were constructed of glass. Metal alloys (such as Cunife and Fernico) and glasses had been developed for light bulbs that expanded and contracted in similar amounts, as temperature changed. These made it easy to construct an insulating envelope of glass, while passing connection wires through the glass to the electrodes.

When a valve is overloaded or operated past its design dissipation, its anode may glow red. In consumer equipment, a glowing anode is universally a sign of an overloaded valve. However, some large transmitting valves are designed to operate with their anodes at red, orange, or in rare cases, white heat.

"Special quality" versions of standard valves were often made, designed for improved performance in some respect, such as a longer life cathode, low noise construction, mechanical ruggedness via ruggedized filaments, low microphony, for applications where the valve will spend much of its time cut off, etc. The only way to know the particular features of a special quality part is by reading the data sheet. Names may reflect the standard name (12AU7==>12AU7A, its equivalent ECC82==>E82CC, etc.), or be absolutely anything (standard and special-quality equivalents of the same valve include 12AU7, ECC82, B329, CV491, E2163, E812CC, M8136, CV4003, 6067, VX7058, 5814A and 12AU7A).

The longest recorded valve life was earned by a Mazda AC/P pentode valve (serial No. 4418) in operation at the BBC's main Northern Ireland transmitter at Lisnagarvey. The valve was in service from 1935 until 1961 and had a recorded life of 232,592 hours. The BBC maintained meticulous records of their valves' lives with periodic returns to their central valve stores.


Getter in opened valve; silvery deposit from getter

Dead vacuum fluorescent display (air has leaked in and the getter spot has become white)

A valve needs an extremely good ("hard") vacuum to avoid the consequences of generating positive ions within the valve. With a small amount of residual gas, some of those atoms may ionize when struck by an electron and create fields that adversely affect the valve characteristics. Larger amounts of residual gas can create a self-sustaining visible glow discharge between the valve elements. To avoid these effects, the residual pressure within the valve must be low enough that the mean free path of an electron is much longer than the size of the valve (so an electron is unlikely to strike a residual atom and very few ionized atoms will be present). Commercial valves are evacuated at manufacture to about 0.000001 mmHg (1.0×10−6 Torr; 130 μPa; 1.3×10−6 mbar; 1.3×10−9 atm).

To prevent gases from compromising the valve's vacuum, modern valves are constructed with "getters", which are usually small, circular troughs filled with metals that oxidize quickly, barium being the most common. While the valve envelope is being evacuated, the internal parts except the getter are heated by RF induction heating to evolve any remaining gas from the metal parts. The valve is then sealed and the getter is heated to a high temperature, again by radio frequency induction heating, which causes the getter material to vaporize and react with any residual gas. The vapor is deposited on the inside of the glass envelope, leaving a silver-colored metallic patch which continues to absorb small amounts of gas that may leak into the valve during its working life. Great care is taken with the valve design to ensure this material is not deposited on any of the working electrodes. If a valve develops a serious leak in the envelope, this deposit turns a white color as it reacts with atmospheric oxygen. Large transmitting and specialized valves often use more exotic getter materials, such as zirconium. Early gettered valves used phosphorus-based getters, and these valves are easily identifiable, as the phosphorus leaves a characteristic orange or rainbow deposit on the glass. The use of phosphorus was short-lived and was quickly replaced by the superior barium getters. Unlike the barium getters, the phosphorus did not absorb any further gases once it had fired.

Getters act by chemically combining with residual or infiltrating gases, but are unable to counteract (non-reactive) inert gases. A known problem, mostly affecting valves with large envelopes such as cathode ray valves and camera valves such as iconoscopes, orthicons, and image orthicons, comes from helium infiltration. The effect appears as impaired or absent functioning, and as a diffuse glow along the electron stream inside the valve. This effect cannot be rectified (short of re-evacuation and resealing), and is responsible for working examples of such valves becoming rarer and rarer. Unused ("New Old Stock") valves can also exhibit inert gas infiltration, so there is no long-term guarantee of these valve types surviving into the future.

Transmitting valves

Large transmitting valves have carbonized tungsten filaments containing a small trace (1% to 2%) of thorium. An extremely thin (molecular) layer of thorium atoms forms on the outside of the wire's carbonized layer and, when heated, serve as an efficient source of electrons. The thorium slowly evaporates from the wire surface, while new thorium atoms diffuse to the surface to replace them. Such thoriated tungsten cathodes usually deliver lifetimes in the tens of thousands of hours. The end-of-life scenario for a thoriated-tungsten filament is when the carbonized layer has mostly been converted back into another form of tungsten carbide and emission begins to drop off rapidly; a complete loss of thorium has never been found to be a factor in the end-of-life in a valve with this type of emitter. WAAY-TV in Huntsville, Alabama achieved 163,000 hours (18.6 years) of service from an Eimac external cavity klystron in the visual circuit of its transmitter; this is the highest documented service life for this type of valve. It has been said that transmitters with valves are better able to survive lightning strikes than transistor transmitters do. While it was commonly believed that at RF power levels above approximately 20 kilowatts, valves were more efficient than solid-state circuits, this is no longer the case, especially in medium wave (AM broadcast) service where solid-state transmitters at nearly all power levels have measurably higher efficiency. FM broadcast transmitters with solid-state power amplifiers up to approximately 15 kW also show better overall power efficiency than valve-based power amplifiers.

Receiving valves

Cathodes in small "receiving" valves are coated with a mixture of barium oxide and strontium oxide, sometimes with addition of calcium oxide or aluminium oxide. An electric heater is inserted into the cathode sleeve, and insulated from it electrically by a coating of aluminium oxide. This complex construction causes barium and strontium atoms to diffuse to the surface of the cathode and emit electrons when heated to about 780 degrees Celsius.

Failure modes

Catastrophic failures

A catastrophic failure is one which suddenly makes the valve unusable. A crack in the glass envelope will allow air into the valve and destroy it. Cracks may result from stress in the glass, bent pins or impacts; valve sockets must allow for thermal expansion, to prevent stress in the glass at the pins. Stress may accumulate if a metal shield or other object presses on the valve envelope and causes differential heating of the glass. Glass may also be damaged by high-voltage arcing.

Valve heaters may also fail without warning, especially if exposed to over voltage or as a result of manufacturing defects. valve heaters do not normally fail by evaporation like lamp filaments, since they operate at much lower temperature. The surge of inrush current when the heater is first energized causes stress in the heater, and can be avoided by slowly warming the heaters, gradually increasing current with a NTC thermistor included in the circuit. valves intended for series-string operation of the heaters across the supply have a specified controlled warm-up time to avoid excess voltage on some heaters as others warm up. Directly heated filament-type cathodes as used in battery-operated valves or some rectifiers may fail if the filament sags, causing internal arcing. Excess heater-to-cathode voltage in indirectly heated cathodes can break down the insulation between elements and destroy the heater.

Arcing between valve elements can destroy the valve. An arc can be caused by applying voltage to the anode before the cathode has come up to operating temperature, or by drawing excess current through a rectifier, which damages the emission coating. Arcs can also be initiated by any loose material inside the valve, or by excess screen voltage. An arc inside the valve allows gas to evolve from the valve materials, and may deposit conductive material on internal insulating spacers.

Valve rectifiers have limited current capability and exceeding ratings will eventually destroy a valve.

Degenerative failures

Degenerative failures are those caused by the slow deterioration of performance over time.

Overheating of internal parts, such as control grids or mica spacer insulators, can result in trapped gas escaping into the valve; this can reduce performance. A getter is used to absorb gases evolved during valve operation, but has only a limited ability to combine with gas. Control of the envelope temperature prevents some types of gassing. A valve with an unusually high level of internal gas may exhibit a visible blue glow when anode voltage is applied. The getter (being a highly reactive metal) is effective against many atmospheric gases, but has no (or very limited) chemical reactivity to inert gases such as helium. One progressive type of failure, especially with physically large envelopes such as those used by camera valves and cathode-ray valves, comes from helium infiltration. The exact mechanism is not clear: the metal-to-glass lead-in seals are one possible infiltration site.

Gas and ions within the valve contribute to grid current which can disturb operation of a valve circuit. Another effect of overheating is the slow deposit of metallic vapors on internal spacers, resulting in inter-element leakage.

Valves on standby for long periods, with heater voltage applied, may develop high cathode interface resistance and display poor emission characteristics. This effect occurred especially in pulse and digital circuits, where valves had no anode current flowing for extended times. valves designed specifically for this mode of operation were made.

Cathode depletion is the loss of emission after thousands of hours of normal use. Sometimes emission can be restored for a time by raising heater voltage, either for a short time or a permanent increase of a few percent. Cathode depletion was uncommon in signal valves but was a frequent cause of failure of monochrome television cathode-ray valves. Usable life of this expensive component was sometimes extended by fitting a boost transformer to increase heater voltage.

Other failures

Vacuum valves may develop defects in operation that make an individual valve unsuitable in a given device, although it may perform satisfactorily in another application. Microphonics refers to internal vibrations of valve elements which modulate the valve's signal in an undesirable way; sound or vibration pick-up may affect the signals, or even cause uncontrolled howling if a feedback path develops between a microphonic valve and, for example, a loudspeaker. Leakage current between AC heaters and the cathode may couple into the circuit, or electrons emitted directly from the ends of the heater may also inject hum into the signal. Leakage current due to internal contamination may also inject noise. Some of these effects make valves unsuitable for small-signal audio use, although unobjectionable for other purposes. Selecting the best of a batch of nominally identical valves for critical applications can produce better results.

Valve pins can develop non-conducting or high resistance surface films due to heat or dirt. Pins can be cleaned to restore conductance.


Valve tester
1930's vaölve tester
Vacuum valves can be tested outside of their circuitry using a valve tester. Here a model from 1930's is shown.

Other valve devices

Most small signal valve devices have been superseded by semiconductors, but some valve electronic devices are still in common use. The magnetron is the type of valve used in all microwave ovens. In spite of the advancing state of the art in power semiconductor technology, the valve still has reliability and cost advantages for high-frequency RF power generation.

Some valves, such as magnetrons, traveling-wave valves, carcinotrons, and klystrons, combine magnetic and electrostatic effects. These are efficient (usually narrow-band) RF generators and still find use in radar, microwave ovens and industrial heating. Traveling-wave valves (TWTs) are very good amplifiers and are even used in some communications satellites. High-powered klystron amplifier valves can provide hundreds of kilowatts in the UHF range.

Cathode ray tube (CRT)

The cathode ray tube (CRT) is a valve used particularly for display purposes. Although there are still many televisions and computer monitors using cathode ray valves, they are rapidly being replaced by flat panel displays whose quality has greatly improved even as their prices drop. This is also true of digital oscilloscopes (based on internal computers and analog to digital converters), although traditional analog scopes (dependent upon CRTs) continue to be produced, are economical, and preferred by many technicians. At one time many radios used "magic eye valves", a specialized sort of CRT used in place of a meter movement to indicate signal strength, or input level in a tape recorder. A modern indicator device, the vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) is also a sort of cathode ray tube.

The X-ray valve is a type of cathode ray valve that generates X-rays when high voltage electrons hit the anode.

Gyrotrons or vacuum masers, used to generate high-power millimeter band waves, are magnetic valves in which a small relativistic effect, due to the high voltage, is used for bunching the electrons. Gyrotrons can generate very high powers (hundreds of kilowatts). Free-electron lasers, used to generate high-power coherent light and even X-rays, are highly relativistic valves driven by high-energy particle accelerators. Thus, these are sorts of cathode ray valves.

Electron multipliers

A photomultiplier is a photovalve whose sensitivity is greatly increased through the use of electron multiplication. This works on the principle of secondary emission, whereby a single electron emitted by the photocathode strikes a special sort of anode known as a dynode causing more electrons to be released from that dynode. Those electrons are accelerated toward another dynode at a higher voltage, releasing more secondary electrons; as many as 15 such stages provide a huge amplification. Despite great advances in solid-state photodetectors, the single-photon detection capability of photomultiplier valves makes this valve device excel in certain applications. Such a valve can also be used for detection of ionizing radiation as an alternative to the Geiger–Müller valve (itself not an actual valve). Historically, the image orthicon TV camera valve widely used in television studios prior to the development of modern CCD arrays also used multistage electron multiplication.

For decades, valve designers tried to augment amplifying valves with electron multipliers in order to increase gain, but these suffered from short life because the material used for the dynodes "poisoned" the valve's hot cathode. (For instance, the interesting RCA 1630 secondary-emission valve was marketed, but did not last.) However, eventually, Philips of the Netherlands developed the EFP60 valve that had a satisfactory lifetime, and was used in at least one product, a laboratory pulse generator. By that time, however, transistors were rapidly improving, making such developments superfluous.

One variant called a "channel electron multiplier" does not use individual dynodes but consists of a curved valve, such as a helix, coated on the inside with material with good secondary emission. One type had a funnel of sorts to capture the secondary electrons. The continuous dynode was resistive, and its ends were connected to enough voltage to create repeated cascades of electrons. The microchannel anode consists of an array of single stage electron multipliers over an image plane; several of these can then be stacked. This can be used, for instance, as an image intensifier in which the discrete channels substitute for focussing.

Tektronix made a high-performance wideband oscilloscope CRT with a channel electron multiplier anode behind the phosphor layer. This anode was a bundled array of a huge number of short individual c.e.m. valves that accepted a low-current beam and intensified it to provide a display of practical brightness. (The electron optics of the wideband electron gun could not provide enough current to directly excite the phosphor.)

Vacuum valves in the 21st century

Niche applications

Although valves have been largely replaced by solid-state devices in most amplifying, switching, and rectifying applications, there are certain exceptions. In addition to the special functions noted above, valves still have some niche applications.

In general, valves are much less susceptible than corresponding solid-state components to transient overvoltages, such as mains voltage surges or lightning, the electromagnetic pulse effect of nuclear explosions, or geomagnetic storms produced by giant solar flares. This property kept them in use for certain military applications long after more practical and less expensive solid-state technology was available for the same applications, as for example with the MiG-25. In that plane, output power of the radar is about one kilowatt and it can burn through a channel under interference.

Vacuum valves are still[when?] practical alternatives to solid-state devices in generating high power at radio frequencies in applications such as industrial radio frequency heating, particle accelerators, and broadcast transmitters. This is particularly true at microwave frequencies where such devices as the klystron and traveling-wave valve provide amplification at power levels unattainable using current semiconductor devices. The household microwave oven uses a magnetron valve to efficiently generate hundreds of watts of microwave power.

In military applications, a high-power valve can generate a 10–100 megawatt signal that can burn out an unprotected receiver's frontend. Such devices are considered non-nuclear electromagnetic weapons; they were introduced in the late 1990s by both the U.S. and Russia.


Enough people prefer valve sound to make valve amplifiers commercially viable in three areas: musical instrument (e.g., guitar) amplifiers, devices used in recording studios, and audiophile equipment.

Many guitarists prefer using valve amplifiers to solid-state models, often due to the way they tend to distort when overdriven. Any amplifier can only accurately amplify a signal to a certain volume; past this limit, the amplifier will begin to distort the signal. Different circuits will distort the signal in different ways; some guitarists prefer the distortion characteristics of valves. Most popular vintage models use valves.

Vacuum fluorescent display
Vacuum floricent display

A modern display technology using a variation of cathode ray tube is often used in videocassette recorders, DVD players and recorders, microwave oven control panels, and automotive dashboards. Rather than raster scanning, these vacuum fluorescent displays (VFD) switch control grids and anode voltages on and off, for instance, to display discrete characters. The VFD uses phosphor-coated anodes as in other display cathode ray valves. Because the filaments are in view, they must be operated at temperatures where the filament does not glow visibly. This is possible using more recent cathode technology, and these valves also operate with quite low anode voltages (often less than 50 volts) unlike cathode ray valves. Their high brightness allows reading the display in bright daylight. VFD valves are flat and rectangular, as well as relatively thin. Typical VFD phosphors emit a broad spectrum of greenish-white light, permitting use of color filters, though different phosphors can give other colors even within the same display. The design of these valves provides a bright glow despite the low energy of the incident electrons. This is because the distance between the cathode and anode is relatively small. (This technology is distinct from fluorescent lighting, which uses a discharge valve.)

Vacuum valves using field electron emitters

In the early years of the 21st century there has been renewed interest in valves, this time with the electron emitter formed on a flat silicon substrate, as in integrated circuit technology. This subject is now called vacuum nanoelectronics.The most common design uses a cold cathode in the form of a large-area field electron source (for example a field emitter array). With these devices, electrons are field-emitted from a large number of closely spaced individual emission sites.

Such integrated microvalves may find application in microwave devices including mobile phones, for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi transmission, and in radar and satellite communication. As of 2012, they were being studied for possible applications in field emission display technology, but there were significant production problems.

As of 2014, NASA's Ames Research Center was reported on working on vacuum-channel transistors produced using CMOS techniques.

Odd valves
A collection of odd valves