Fleming valve

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The first prototype Fleming valves, built October 1904. Fleming valves.jpg
The first prototype Fleming valves, built October 1904.
Early commercial Fleming valves used in radio receivers, 1919 Commercial Fleming valves.jpg
Early commercial Fleming valves used in radio receivers, 1919
Fleming valve schematic from US Patent 803,684. Fleming Valve - US Patent 803,684.jpg
Fleming valve schematic from US Patent 803,684.

The Fleming valve, also called the Fleming oscillation valve, was a thermionic valve or vacuum tube invented in 1904 by Englishman John Ambrose Fleming as a detector for early radio receivers used in electromagnetic wireless telegraphy. It was the first practical vacuum tube and the first thermionic diode, a vacuum tube whose purpose is to conduct current in one direction and block current flowing in the opposite direction. The thermionic diode was later widely used as a rectifier — a device which converts alternating current (AC) into direct current (DC) — in the power supplies of a wide range of electronic devices, until beginning to be replaced by the selenium rectifier in the early 1930s and almost completely replaced by the semiconductor diode in the 1960s. The Fleming valve was the forerunner of all vacuum tubes, which dominated electronics for 50 years. The IEEE has described it as "one of the most important developments in the history of electronics", [1] and it is on the List of IEEE Milestones for electrical engineering.

Vacuum tube Device that controls electric current between electrodes in an evacuated container

In electronics, a vacuum tube, an electron tube, or valve or, colloquially, a tube, is a device that controls electric current flow in a high vacuum between electrodes to which an electric potential difference has been applied.

John Ambrose Fleming Electrical engineer and physicist

Sir John Ambrose Fleming FRS was an English electrical engineer and physicist who invented the first thermionic valve or vacuum tube, designed the radio transmitter with which the first transatlantic radio transmission was made, and also established the right-hand rule used in physics. He was the eldest of seven children of James Fleming DD, a Congregational minister, and his wife Mary Ann, at Lancaster, Lancashire, and baptised on 11 February 1850. A devout Christian, he once preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London on evidence for the resurrection. In 1932, he and Douglas Dewar and Bernard Acworth helped establish the Evolution Protest Movement. Fleming bequeathed much of his estate to Christian charities, especially those for the poor. He was a noted photographer, painted water colours, and enjoyed climbing the Alps.

Detector (radio)

In radio, a detector is a device or circuit that extracts information from a modulated radio frequency current or voltage. The term dates from the first three decades of radio (1888-1918). Unlike modern radio stations which transmit sound on an uninterrupted carrier wave, early radio stations transmitted information by radiotelegraphy. The transmitter was switched on and off to produce long or short periods of radio waves, spelling out text messages in Morse code. Therefore, early radio receivers had only to distinguish between the presence or absence of a radio signal. The device that performed this function in the receiver circuit was called a detector. A variety of different detector devices, such as the coherer, electrolytic detector, magnetic detector and the crystal detector, were used during the wireless telegraphy era until superseded by vacuum tube technology.


How it works

Valve receiver made by Marconi Co. has two Fleming valves, in case one burns out Marconi Valve Tuner.jpg
Valve receiver made by Marconi Co. has two Fleming valves, in case one burns out

The valve consists of an evacuated glass bulb containing two electrodes: a cathode in the form of a "filament", a loop of carbon or fine tungsten wire, similar to that used in the light bulbs of the time, and an anode (plate) consisting of a sheet metal plate. Although in early versions the anode was a flat metal plate placed next to the cathode, in later versions it became a metal cylinder surrounding the cathode. In some versions, a grounded copper screen surrounded the bulb to shield against the influence of external electric fields.

Electrode electrical conductor used to make contact with a nonmetallic part of a circuit (e.g. a semiconductor, an electrolyte or a vacuum)

An electrode is an electrical conductor used to make contact with a nonmetallic part of a circuit. The word was coined by William Whewell at the request of the scientist Michael Faraday from two Greek words: elektron, meaning amber, and hodos, a way.

A cathode is the electrode from which a conventional current leaves a polarized electrical device. This definition can be recalled by using the mnemonic CCD for Cathode Current Departs. A conventional current describes the direction in which positive charges move. Electrons have a negative electrical charge, so the movement of electrons is opposite to that of the conventional current flow. Consequently, the mnemonic cathode current departs also means that electrons flow into the device's cathode from the external circuit.

Anode electrode through which conventional current flows into a polarized electrical device

An anode is an electrode through which the conventional current enters into a polarized electrical device. This contrasts with a cathode, an electrode through which conventional current leaves an electrical device. A common mnemonic is ACID for "anode current into device". The direction of conventional current in a circuit is opposite to the direction of electron flow, so electrons flow out the anode into the outside circuit. In a galvanic cell, the anode is the electrode at which the oxidation reaction occurs.

In operation, a separate current flows through the cathode "filament", heating it so that some of the electrons in the metal gain sufficient energy to escape their parent atoms into the vacuum of the tube, a process called thermionic emission. The AC to be rectified is applied between the filament and the plate. When the plate has a positive voltage with respect to the filament, the electrons are attracted to it and an electric current flows from filament to plate. In contrast, when the plate has a negative voltage with respect to the filament, the electrons are not attracted to it and no current flows through the tube (unlike the filament, the plate does not emit electrons). As current can pass through the valve in one direction only, it therefore "rectifies" an AC to a pulsing DC current.

Electron subatomic particle with negative electric charge

The electron is a subatomic particle, symbol
, whose electric charge is negative one elementary charge. Electrons belong to the first generation of the lepton particle family, and are generally thought to be elementary particles because they have no known components or substructure. The electron has a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton. Quantum mechanical properties of the electron include an intrinsic angular momentum (spin) of a half-integer value, expressed in units of the reduced Planck constant, ħ. Being fermions, no two electrons can occupy the same quantum state, in accordance with the Pauli exclusion principle. Like all elementary particles, electrons exhibit properties of both particles and waves: they can collide with other particles and can be diffracted like light. The wave properties of electrons are easier to observe with experiments than those of other particles like neutrons and protons because electrons have a lower mass and hence a longer de Broglie wavelength for a given energy.

Thermionic emission thermally induced flow of charge carriers from a surface

Thermionic emission is the thermally induced flow of charge carriers from a surface or over a potential-energy barrier. This occurs because the thermal energy given to the carrier overcomes the work function of the material. The charge carriers can be electrons or ions, and in older literature are sometimes referred to as thermions. After emission, a charge that is equal in magnitude and opposite in sign to the total charge emitted is initially left behind in the emitting region. But if the emitter is connected to a battery, the charge left behind is neutralized by charge supplied by the battery as the emitted charge carriers move away from the emitter, and finally the emitter will be in the same state as it was before emission.

Rectifier AC-DC conversion device; electrical device that converts alternating current (AC), which periodically reverses direction, to direct current (DC), which flows in only one direction

A rectifier is an electrical device that converts alternating current (AC), which periodically reverses direction, to direct current (DC), which flows in only one direction.

This simple operation was somewhat complicated by the presence of residual air in the valve, as the vacuum pumps of Fleming's time were unable to create as high a vacuum as exists in modern vacuum tubes. At high voltages, the valve could become unstable and oscillate, but this occurred at voltages far above those normally used.


The Fleming valve was the first practical application of thermionic emission, discovered in 1873 by Frederick Guthrie. As a result of his work on the incandescent light bulb, Thomas Edison made his own discovery of the phenomenon in 1880, which led to it being called the Edison effect . Edison was granted a patent for this device as part of an electrical indicator in 1884, but did not find a practical use for it. Professor Fleming of University College London consulted for the Edison Electric Light Company from 1881-1891, and subsequently for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company.

Frederick Guthrie British physicist

Prof Frederick Guthrie FRS FRSE was a British physicist and chemist and academic author.

Incandescent light bulb Electric light with a wire filament heated until it glows

An incandescent light bulb, incandescent lamp or incandescent light globe is an electric light with a wire filament heated to such a high temperature that it glows with visible light (incandescence). The filament is protected from oxidation with a glass or fused quartz bulb that is filled with inert gas or a vacuum. In a halogen lamp, filament evaporation is slowed by a chemical process that redeposits metal vapor onto the filament, thereby extending its life.

Thomas Edison American inventor and businessman

Thomas Alva Edison was an American inventor and businessman, who has been described as America's greatest inventor. He developed many devices in fields such as electric power generation, mass communication, sound recording, and motion pictures. These inventions, which include the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the long-lasting, practical electric light bulb, had a widespread impact on the modern industrialized world. He was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of organized science and teamwork to the process of invention, working with many researchers and employees. He established the first industrial research laboratory.

In 1901 Fleming designed the transmitter used by Guglielmo Marconi in the first transmission of radio waves across the Atlantic from Poldhu, England, to Nova Scotia, Canada. The distance between the two points was about 3,500 kilometres (2,200 mi). Although the contact, reported November 12, 1901, was widely heralded as a great scientific advance at the time, there is also some skepticism about the claim, because the received signal, the three dots of the Morse code letter "S", was so weak the primitive receiver had difficulty distinguishing it from atmospheric radio noise caused by static discharges, leading later critics to suggest it may have been random noise. Regardless, it was clear to Fleming that reliable transatlantic communication with the existing transmitter required more sensitive receiving apparatus.

Guglielmo Marconi Italian inventor and radio pioneer

Guglielmo Marconi, 1st Marquis of Marconi was an Italian inventor, and electrical engineer, known for his pioneering work on long-distance radio transmission, development of Marconi's law, and a radio telegraph system. He is credited as the inventor of radio, and he shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Ferdinand Braun "in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy".

Poldhu village in the United Kingdom

Poldhu is a small area in south Cornwall, England, UK, situated on the Lizard Peninsula; it comprises Poldhu Point and Poldhu Cove. Poldhu means "black pool" in Cornish. Poldhu lies on the coast of Mount's Bay and is in the northern part of the parish of Mullion; the churchtown is 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) to the south-east. On the north side of Poldhu Cove is the parish of Gunwalloe and the village of Porthleven is a further 7 kilometres (4.3 mi) to the north.

England Country in north-west Europe, part of the United Kingdom

England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Wales to the west and Scotland to the north. The Irish Sea lies west of England and the Celtic Sea to the southwest. England is separated from continental Europe by the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south. The country covers five-eighths of the island of Great Britain, which lies in the North Atlantic, and includes over 100 smaller islands, such as the Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Wight.

Thermionic diode valves derived from the Fleming valve, from the 1930s (left) to the 1970s (right) FRec var.jpg
Thermionic diode valves derived from the Fleming valve, from the 1930s (left) to the 1970s (right)

The receiver for the transatlantic demonstration employed a coherer, which had poor sensitivity and degraded the tuning of the receiver. This led Fleming to look for a detector which was more sensitive and reliable while at the same time being better suited for use with tuned circuits. [2] [3] In 1904 Fleming tried an Edison effect bulb for this purpose, and found that it worked well to rectify high frequency oscillations and thus allow detection of the rectified signals by a galvanometer. On November 16, 1904, he applied for a US patent for what he termed an oscillation valve. This patent was subsequently issued as number 803,684 and found immediate utility in the detection of messages sent by Morse code.


The coherer was a primitive form of radio signal detector used in the first radio receivers during the wireless telegraphy era at the beginning of the 20th century. Its use in radio was based on the 1890 findings of French physicist Edouard Branly and adapted by other physicists and inventors over the next ten years. The device consists of a tube or capsule containing two electrodes spaced a small distance apart with loose metal filings in the space between. When a radio frequency signal is applied to the device, the metal particles would cling together or "cohere", reducing the initial high resistance of the device, thereby allowing a much greater direct current to flow through it. In a receiver, the current would activate a bell, or a Morse paper tape recorder to make a record of the received signal. The metal filings in the coherer remained conductive after the signal (pulse) ended so that the coherer had to be "decohered" by tapping it with a clapper actuated by an electromagnet, each time a signal was received, thereby restoring the coherer to its original state. Coherers remained in widespread use until about 1907, when they were replaced by more sensitive electrolytic and crystal detectors.

Galvanometer instrument to measure electric current

A galvanometer is an electromechanical instrument used for detecting and indicating an electric current. A galvanometer works as an actuator, by producing a rotary deflection, in response to electric current flowing through a coil in a constant magnetic field. Early galvanometers were not calibrated, but their later developments were used as measuring instruments, called ammeters, to measure the current flowing through an electric circuit.

Oscillation valves

The Fleming valve proved to be the start of a technological revolution. After reading Fleming's 1905 paper on his oscillation valve, American engineer Lee DeForest in 1906 created a three-element vacuum tube, the Audion, by adding a wire grid between cathode and anode. It was the first electronic amplifying device, allowing the creation of amplifiers and continuous wave oscillators. De Forest quickly refined his device into the triode, which became the basis of long-distance telephone and radio communications, radars, and early digital computers for 50 years, until the advent of the transistor in the 1960s. Fleming sued De Forest for infringing his valve patents, resulting in decades of expensive and disruptive litigation, which were not settled until 1943 when the United States Supreme Court ruled Fleming's patent invalid. [4]

Power applications

Later, when vacuum tube equipment began to be powered from wall power by transformers instead of batteries, the Fleming valve was developed into a rectifier to produce the DC plate (anode) voltage required by other vacuum tubes. Around 1914 Irving Langmuir at General Electric developed a high voltage version called the Kenotron which was used to power x-ray tubes. As a rectifier, the tube was used for high voltage applications but its high internal resistance made it inefficient in low voltage, high current applications. Until vacuum tube equipment was replaced by transistors in the 1970s, radios and televisions usually had one or more diode tubes.

References and notes


  1. "Milestones:Fleming Valve, 1904". IEEE Global History Network. IEEE. Retrieved 29 July 2011.
  2. Radio Communications: A Brief Synopsis
  3. John Ambrose Fleming (1849-1945) By W A Atherton, Published in Wireless World August 1990
  4. The Supreme Court invalidated the patent because of an improper disclaimer and later maintained the technology in the patent was known art when filed. For more see, Misreading the Supreme Court: A Puzzling Chapter in the History of Radio. Mercurians.org.


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