August 1944 Radio-Craft
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics.
See articles from Radio-Craft,
published 1929 - 1953. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
Signal multiplexing was originally performed using a rotating mechanical
device with commutator contacts. Such a contraption suffered from
a number of limitations including contact wear, noise, speed, size
and weight. Probably the most limiting were contact wear and switching
speed. Bulk could be accommodated because back then everything was
bulky. Standard vacuum tube switches were eventually used to build
multiple (n) input / multiple (m)
output switching circuits, but the space needed to contain them
grew exponentially with the n x m matrix. Bell Telephone Systems,
which played a huge part in the advancement of primarily wired communications
systems, developed a 'radial-beam tube' that used a magnetic field
to steer the electron flow between opposing sets of anodes and cathodes.
Steering circuits controlled the position of the electron beam within
the tube. Since there were no moving parts, many of the drawbacks
of mechanical systems were eliminated.
Union Type 6324 Radial Beam-Switching Commutator Tube
Tubes website photo)
A Radial-Beam Tube
New Development is an Electronic Commutator
By I. Queen
All illustrations courtesy of Bell System
Fig. 1 - Drawing shows the focused beams. Rotation of
these beams by a magnetic field is the tube's secret of
Fig. 2 - How the focused beam looks (above and below).
The electron paths were made luminescent by putting a small
amount of gas into the tube.
An entirely new type of tube with unusual possibilities has been
developed and is already in operation in New York City, in a multiplex
signaling system. This radial beam electron tube is remarkably simple
in construction, requires no focusing arrangement, is small, works
on low voltages and has high efficiency. It is used as an electronic
commutator device and has recently been described in the Bell System
Technical Journal by A. M. Skellett.
The cathode of this tube is held vertically and is surrounded
by a cylindrical anode structure, as shown in Fig. 1. If each anode
is at the same positive voltage with respect to the cathode, the
anode current will, of course, be equally distributed among them,
and each anode will receive approximately only 3% of the total cathode
If a magnetic field (such as shown by the Harrow) is applied,
the electron beam will be directed in only two diametrically opposite
directions (Fig. 1), parallel to the applied magnetic field. If
the uniform magnetic field were made to revolve, so would the two
beams, so that such a field could serve not only for focusing but
to provide rotation. In this application the two beams will contain
approximately 90% of the cathode current!
The action of the beam is well shown in Fig. 2. For these photos
the cathode was actively coated in only two opposite spots. Note
how the electron beam twists in following the applied magnetic field.
A convenient rotating magnetic field is furnished by the stator
of a two-pole poly-phase A.C. motor. The tube is simply inserted
into this stator in place of the usual armature. An unwound stator
of this type is shown alongside an experimental tube in Fig. 3.
The loss in a typical stator is under three watts, making the entire
set-up highly efficient.
The tube in Fig. 3 is constructed with 30 anode elements. Each
element is really a pentode tube, containing a control grid, screen,
suppressor grid, along its path. Fig. 4 shows the construction.
Note that only one beam is emitted, the other being suppressed.
Fig. 3 - The radial beam tube and its field magnet.
Suppression of one of the beams is accomplished in several ways.
At any instant the anodes on one side of the tube may be maintained
positive and on the other side negative, this polarity rotating
with the magnetic field. It may also be done by means of the suppressors.
Still another method is to use an odd number of anode elements.
Then when the beam falls on an element on one side it will fall
between two elements on the other.
The maximum cyclic speed is approximately 10,000 per second. Since
no mechanical wear results and no inertia is present, this tube
makes an ideal rotating commutator.
An early system of multiplex telegraphy used a mechanical rotating
commutator which switched in each communication channel for a small
portion of the total time. This system proved impractical because
of mechanical difficulties. The present tube will, of course, eliminate
these difficulties. Incidentally, this type of communication does
not require the elaborate filters of the carrier system, now in
Two tubes of the radial beam type have been operated successfully
in New York for experimental signaling. A neon tube in the anode
circuit of each element was used as indicator. The only amplification
provided was that of the tube itself! Both transmitting and receiving
tubes were connected to the same source of 60 cycle A.C. so that
automatic synchronism of corresponding anodes was obtained. Much
will probably be heard of this tube in the near future.
Fig. 4 - Internal construction detail.
Posted August 21, 2014