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With Vacuum Tubes, Antique Electronics is Not an Oxymoron!

Though vacuum tubes have largely been supplanted by transistor technology, they still occupy many niche applications in the 21st century. As well as keeping vintage electronic devices such as radios and televisions in operation, tubes manufactured decades ago are prized by collectors. Western Electric was a major manufacturer of these tubes throughout the 20th century.

For what equipment was Western Electric vacuum tubes made?

Western Electric introduced the high vacuum tube in 1913 and went on to manufacture millions of tubes in sizes and electrical ratings designed for specific categories. These include tubes for:

  • Radio: receivers and transmitters for broadcast and two-way communication
  • Television: receivers and transmitters
  • Radar: larger tubes for high power
  • Telephone repeater: serves as amplifier of signals along telephone line
  • Audio: amplifiers and other equipment
What about original packaging?

Many collectors of vintage vacuum tubes desire to have the original packaging for the tube. Western Electric tubes were packaged in rectangular boxes printed with the words, "Western Electric," and "Electron Tube," where an electron tube is simply another name for a vacuum tube. Sometimes, the boxes will also have the Bell Telephone logo of the outline of a bell inside a circle. The box will also label the tube model designation and have the production lot information stamped on it.

Since tubes are made out of glass and are fragile, the interior of the box will contain wrapping material. Prior to the introduction of styrofoam, paper was the most common wrapping material. Documentation that may have come with the tube will include a data sheet of electrical specifications such as maximum voltage, current, and power dissipation.

How can you have assurance that a tube works?

To be absolutely certain that a tube works, you will need a tube tester. However, whether you intend to use a vacuum tube in vintage electronics or simply to fill in your collection on a shelf, you will find that many vintage tubes are still in working condition. Many Western Electric tubes are offered as New Old Stock (NOS), which means they have never been sold at retail and consequently have never been subjected to use, but there's no guarantee that a product will still work.

How do tubes physically differ?

Collectors seeking a representative set of tubes have over 200 different types of Western Electric tubes from which to choose. These tubes physically differ by:

  • Shape: Common shapes are spherical, cylindrical, and vase-like.
  • Components: Triodes come with a grid, plate, and cathode, while a tetrode adds another grid, and a pentode adds two more grids.
  • Pins: May have three or more pins on the bottom to accommodate equipment sockets
  • Size: Equates with power output.
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