Look at most textbooks on computer organisation and you’ll find a brief history of computing, usually starting with the era of ‘vacuum tubes’. These were the forerunner to transistors before the 1950s – any electrical signal that needed amplification (or rectification) was done using these devices.
But I have to admit the term ‘vacuum tube’ erks me a little, particularly when it comes from Australian university lecturers, and I felt the need to put things right at least from an Australian viewpoint as we deserve to keep our technology heritage intact.
Here, they’re not ‘vacuum tubes’ but ‘thermionic valves’ or just plain ‘valves’. While much of our technology is made elsewhere these days, Australia has a rich heritage when it comes to tech. We were a leading maker of valves through AWV (Amalgamated Wireless Valve), a joint venture between US giant RCA and Australia’s own AWA. AWV had a large factory making all manner of transmitting and receiving valves under the AWV and RCA brands up until the 1970s in Ashfield in Sydney’s inner west.
But it was the work by the team at AWV in Sydney, headed by Fritz Langford-Smith and started during the late 1920s and early 1930s that resulted in the launch of the Radiotron Designer’s Handbook, the text that was to become the tech bible for design before and during World War II (and for many years after). It appeared in several revisions as new techniques were discovered, new valves designed, eventually running over some 1500 pages. Langford-Smith was educated in Australia, receiving a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree from Sydney University in 1926, graduating with a Bachelor of Engineering (B.E.) two years later. He spent some of his early and later career in the UK, but much of his working life was spent with AWV.
Sadly, valves are no longer made in Australia, but they’re still made in China and Eastern Europe, mostly to feed the growing music/audio industry, but also for transmitting and TV use.
They may be known as ‘vacuum tubes’ in the US, but in Australia (and the UK), they’re known as ‘valves’.
(EDIT: The Radiotron Designer’s Handbook was first published in 1934, so it celebrates its 80th birthday this year!)