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A thyratron is a type of gas filled tube used as a high energy electrical switch and controlled rectifier. A thyratron is basically a "controlled gas rectifier". Triode, tetrode and pentode variations of the thyratron have been manufactured in the past, though most are of the triode design. Because of the gas fill, thyratrons can handle much greater currents than similar hard vacuum valves/tubes since in the ionized gas electron multiplication occurs (each electron leaving the cathode may generate 4 more electrons) by collisions of electrons with gas atoms, using the phenomenon known as a Townsend discharge. The average speed of the ions in the gas is much lower than that of the electrons, so that the ions may only account for 10% of the total current. Gases used include mercury vapor, xenon, neon, and (in special high-voltage applications or applications requiring very short switching times) hydrogen. Unlike a vacuum tube, a thyratron cannot be used to amplify signals linearly.
In the 1920s thyratrons were derived from early vacuum tubes such as the UV-200, which contained a small amount of argon gas to increase its sensitivity as a radio signal detector; and the German LRS Relay tube, which also contained argon gas. Gas rectifiers which predated vacuum tubes, such as the argon-filled General Electric "Tungar bulb" and the Cooper-Hewitt mercury pool rectifier, also provided an influence. Irving Langmuir and G. S. Meikle of GE are usually cited as the first investigators to study controlled rectification in gas tubes, about 1914. The first commercial thyratrons didn't appear until around 1928.
A solid-state device with similar operating characteristics is the thyristor, sometimes also known as the silicon controlled rectifier (SCR). The term "thyristor" was derived from a combination of "thyratron" and "transistor". Since the 1960s thyristors have replaced thyratrons in most low- and medium-power applications.
A typical hot-cathode thyratron uses a heated filament cathode, completely contained within a shield assembly with a control grid on one open side, which faces the plate-shaped anode. In the off situation the voltage on the control grid is negative with respect to the cathode. When positive voltage is applied to the anode, no current flows. When the control electrode is made less negative, electrons from the cathode can travel to the anode because the positive attraction from the anode prevails over the negative repulsion caused by the slightly negative voltage on the control grid. The electrons will ionize the gas by collisions with the gas in the tube and an avalanche effect results, causing an arc discharge between cathode and anode. The shield prevents ionized current paths that might form within other parts of the tube. The gas in a thyratron is typically at a fraction of the pressure of air at sea level; 15 to 30 millibars (1.5 to 3 kPa) is typical. For a cold cathode thyratron the trigger voltage on the control grid will typically be positive, and a flash over from control grid to cathode will initiate the arc discharge in the tube.
Both hot- and cold-cathode versions are encountered. A hot cathode is at an advantage, as ionization of the gas is made easier; thus, the tube's control electrode is more sensitive. Once turned on, the thyratron will remain on (conducting) as long as there is a significant current flowing through it. When the anode voltage or current falls to zero, the device switches off.
Low-power thyratrons (relay tubes and trigger tubes) were manufactured in the past for controlling incandescent lamps, electromechanical relays or solenoids, for bidirectional counters, to perform various functions in Dekatron calculators, for voltage treshold detectors in RC timers, etc. Glow thyratrons were optimized for high gas-discharge light output or even phosphorized and used as self-displaying shift registers in large-format, crawling-text dot-matrix displays.
Medium-power thyratrons found applications in machine tool motor controllers, where thyratrons, operating as phase-controlled rectifiers, are utilized in the tool's armature regulator (zero to "base speed", "constant torque" mode) and in the tool's field regulator ("base speed" to about twice "base speed", "constant horsepower" mode). Examples include Monarch Machine Tool 10EE lathe, which used thyratrons from 1949 until solid-state devices replaced them in 1984, 13EE and EE1000. For a brief period, an SCR-based "Monarch Sidney" drive was offered, which incorporated so-called SCR "power blocks", but this model was quickly discontinued. The various national laboratories are still utilizing thyratron-based 10EE and 13EE/EE1000 machines and Richardson Electronics, as the successor to Electrons Inc, still makes the thyratrons which these machines utilize.[dubious ]
Thyratrons are also used in high-power UHF television transmitters, to protect inductive output tubes from internal shorts, by grounding the incoming high-voltage supply during the time it takes for a circuit breaker to open and reactive components to drain their stored charges. This is commonly called a crowbar circuit.
Thyratrons have been replaced in most low and medium-power applications by corresponding semiconductor devices known as thyristors (sometimes called silicon-controlled rectifiers, or SCRs) and triacs. However, switching service requiring voltages above 20 kV and involving very short risetimes remains within the domain of the thyratron.
Variations of the thyratron idea are the krytron, the sprytron, the ignitron, and the triggered spark gap, all still used today in special applications, such as nuclear weapons (krytron) and AC-DC-AC power transmission (ignitron).
One miniature thyratron, the triode 6D4, found an additional use as a potent noise source, when operated as a diode (grid tied to cathode) in a transverse magnetic field. Sufficiently filtered for "flatness" ("white noise") in a band of interest, such noise was used for testing radio receivers, servo systems and occasionally in analog computing as a random value source.
The 885 is a small thyratron tube, using xenon gas. This device was used extensively in the timebase circuits of early oscilloscopes in the 1930s. It was employed in a circuit called a relaxation oscillator. During World War II small thyratrons, similar to the 885 were utilized in pairs to construct bistables, the "memory" cells used by early computers and code breaking machines. Thyratrons were also used for phase angle control of alternating current (AC) power sources in battery chargers and light dimmers, but these were usually of a larger current handling capacity than the 885. The 885 is a 2.5 volt, 5-pin based variant of the 884/6Q5.