Valves, not ‘vacuum tubes’: Australia’s rich tech heritage


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,┬áheaded by Fritz Langford-Smith and┬ástarted 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!)

6 comments for “Valves, not ‘vacuum tubes’: Australia’s rich tech heritage

  1. Max Andersen
    March 29, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    Hi Darren. The Yanks pronounced them “toobs”, much to my amusement. I still have a couple of copies of The Radiotron Designer’s Handbook. My kids would have no idea of their significance and will likely turf them out along with my hoarded “Radio and Hobbies” when I cark it.

    • Darren Yates
      March 29, 2014 at 6:09 pm

      I’m reading a textbook at the moment – The Essentials of Computer Organisation and Architecture (Null & Lobur, 2012, Jones & Bartlett Learning) – and the authors here both agree that “vacuum tubes should be called valves because they control the flow of electrons in electrical systems in much the same way as valves control the flow of water in a plumbing system” (p. 21).
      So we’re not wrong! :)

  2. Graham
    April 30, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    Still have my Dad’s 3rd ed Radiotron Designers Handbook from 1940. A bit worn and termites have nibbled at some of the edges.

    • Darren Yates
      May 4, 2014 at 9:34 am

      I’m not surprised they’ve only nibbled the edges – some of that valve theory can be pretty hard-going!

  3. bootbaby
    May 22, 2014 at 8:10 am

    Good to know you are aware of the vast resource contained in Radiotron.

    This is one of the books I have read through most thoroughly, and has helped me design circuits, some of which were solid-state.

    In the US I guess they are called tubes because of what they are made from.
    Valves refer more so to what most of them actually function as.

    Keep up the good work, I came here by a link from your Arduino material.

    • Darren Yates
      June 2, 2014 at 10:41 am

      Thanks, bootbaby.

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