Published in ScienceNOW, 23 May 2012
Peer inside an antique radio and you’ll find what look like small light bulbs. They’re actually vacuum tubes—the predecessors of the silicon transistor. Vacuum tubes went the way of the dinosaurs in the 1960s, but researchers have now brought them back to life, creating a nano-sized version that’s faster and hardier than the transistor. It’s even able to survive the harsh radiation of outer space.
Developed early last century, vacuum tubes offered the first easy way to amplify electric signals. Like light bulbs, they are glass bulbs containing a heated filament. But above the filament are two additional electrodes: a metal grid and, at the top of the bulb, a positively charged plate. The heated filament emits a steady flow of electrons, which are attracted to the plate’s positive charge. The rate of electron flow can be controlled by the charge on the intervening grid, which means a small electric signal applied to the grid—say, the tiny output of a gramophone—is reproduced in the much stronger electron flow from filament to plate. As a result, the signal is amplified and can be sent to a loudspeaker. [...]
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