Subminiature Magnetic Amplifiers
December 1957 Radio & TV News
amplifiers (aka "mag amps") use a property of saturated core inductors
(saturable reactors) to obtain signal amplification via a transformer-type
plus diode-assisted voltage multiplication. Magnetic amplifiers
were preferred over vacuum tube amplifiers in some circuits because
they do not require a high bias voltage, are generally smaller in
size, are quite robust and are practically immune to microphonics.
Their biggest limitation is bandwidth. The high number of turns
in the core provides a lot of interwinding capacitance so the self-resonant
frequency is in the low megahertz range. Additionally, the need
for the magnetic amplifier reactor to operate in a saturated condition
further imposed a limit on the frequency response. Even today, there
are some critical applications that exploit the fool-proof and ultra
high reliability nature of the magnetic amplifier. This article
goes into the details of operation both as amplifiers and as bistable
Subminiature Magnetic Amplifiers
By A. Hugh Argabrite
Patent Engineer Berkeley Div., Beckman
bobbin of wire used in the Ferristor, shown beside vacuum tube for
New "Ferristor," small, ultra-fast saturable
reactor, has high reliability for industrial automation needs.
The demand for reliability in electronic equipment is constantly
increasing. This demand has revived interest in one of the earliest
practical amplifiers of electric signals - the magnetic amplifier.
One of the first models was built by the famous American
radio pioneer, E. F. W. Alexanderson, over forty years ago. By 1945
the magnetic amplifier had proven itself dependable by years of
service in military and industrial control applications, but its
usefulness was limited because of its long response time. This slowness
was due to the necessarily low "carrier" frequencies. The magnetic
amplifier "carrier" is basically the same as the carrier used in
radio broadcasting. A relatively high frequency wave is modulated
by or "carries" the lower frequency "intelligence" or desired signal.
High core-material losses had precluded the use of high
carrier frequencies. But now, development of the new low-loss, high-permeability
ferromagnetic alloys has made magnetic amplifiers practical for
electronic circuits. With the reduction of core losses, carrier
frequencies up to 10 megacycles are possible. This gives magnetic
amplifiers the fast response required in modern electronic instrumentation.
One of these new units is the "Ferristor" saturable reactor,
made by the Berkeley Division of Beckman Instruments, Inc. It is
a tiny device, not much larger than the eraser on a pencil. Technically
it is a subminiature, ultrafast saturable reactor.
The "Ferristor" reactor is very simple in construction. It has two
solenoid-type windings on a magnetic core. The inner, or carrier-current,
winding has a few hundred turns of very fine copper wire. The outer,
or control, winding has from one thousand to four thousand turns,
depending on its intended use. The core is a few turns of sheet
magnetic material, 1/8000 of an inch thick, rolled into a scroll.
The finished assembly is completely sealed by "potting" it in epoxy
Fig. 1. Basic magnetic amplifier. Permanent magnet used
to provide biasing effect.
Fig. 2. Curves of ferroresonant operation.
Fig. 3. Typical ring counter stage. The varistor is used
for circuit stability.
Fig. 4. Typical one-shot multivibrator.
Fig. 5. Circuit of current discriminator.
These units can be used in at least two fundamentally
different ways, either as magnetic amplifiers or as bi-stable ferroresonant
elements. The latter use requires only one winding however.
When this reactor is used as a magnetic amplifier, Fig. 1, a
small load capacitor is placed in series with the carrier winding.
Changes in control current vary the core permeability. This changes
the effective inductance of the carrier winding. The carrier current
is thus linearly modulated by the waveform of the control current.
The magnitude of the carrier current and the amplitude of the r.f.
output (across the load capacitor) vary in step. The amplified input
waveform is "recovered" by rectifying the output and filtering out
the r.f. The orientation of the rectifying diode determines whether
the output is in- or out-of-phase with the input. The unit amplifies
because the carrier-current variations are much larger than the
control current changes. The extreme sensitivity of magnetic amplifiers
enables them to amplify signals weaker than vacuum-tube shot noise.
The parts of a magnetic amplifier circuit may be compared
to the parts of a vacuum-tube circuit. The control current corresponds
to the control grid voltage; the carrier supply compares to the
"B+" supply; the carrier current is analogous to the plate current;
and the load impedance corresponds to the plate load.
other basic application of "Ferristor" reactors employs the phenomenon
of ferroresonance to produce a bi-stable characteristic. With this
characteristic they can maintain either of two possible stable states
In ferroresonant operation a capacitor is
selected to resonate with the partially saturated carrier winding
inductance near the applied frequency. The resulting circuit has
an S-shaped curve of voltage versus current. See Fig. 2. The capacitive
reactance is constant with increasing current. But when the current
through the iron-cored carrier winding is increased it becomes saturated.
This decreases its effective inductance and the inductive reactance
of the circuit.
Over a limited range, either of two different
stable values of current can exist, for one given voltage. In circuit
operation this voltage is actually the r.f. supply voltage. The
intersections of the curves of power supply output and positive-slope
circuit impedance are the two stable states. In the low current,
or non-saturated state, the circuit is inductively reactive. In
the high current, or saturated, state it is capacitively reactive.
In ferroresonant operation the control current does not
flow constantly. Instead trigger pulses of control current are used
to induce partial saturation of the core. It can be saturated by
an external magnetic field, by d.c. in the control winding, or by
r.f. in the carrier winding (which makes it capable of self-saturation).
A d.c. trigger pulse is applied through the control winding
to raise the carrier current to the high state. The trigger pulse
can be of either polarity, since both will temporarily reduce inductance.
To make it change states, the core must be partially saturated to
the point where any current increase decreases the inductance enough
to drop the output voltage. Thus a pulse causes the current to re-generatively
jump to the stable high current point. The interdependence of low
inductance and high current keeps the circuit latched in this state
of self-saturation. The unit cannot return to the low-current state
until its supply voltage is reduced below the level where self-saturating
current flow starts.
A ferroresonant flip-flop can be constructed
by running two reactors in parallel. They must have a common coupling
element-capacitor or triggering reactor - to the r.f. supply voltage.
If memory and gating circuitry are added, the flip-flop can be operated
with a single input.
An extended version of the flip-flop
is the ring counter, Fig. 3, composed of several reactors operated
in a closed loop. The ring counters are connected to the supply
voltage through a common coupling element. Its value is chosen so
only one unit at a time can draw high current. If two or more try
to jump high, the extra current through the common coupling tends
to drop the voltage so neither can be high.
The action in
a ring counter is not random. In one common circuit, each unit has
a directive circuit to transfer the high current or "active" state
from one stage to the next stage in turn with each successive input
pulse. The varistor associated with the "active" unit has the largest
current through it. Thus it will conduct the most when the ring
is pulsed. This increased current also flows in the control winding
of the unit following. The new unit then goes into the high current
state and the previous unit is forced out because of the action
of the common coupling element.
The action of the stages
in a ring counter may be compared with several glow regulator tubes
in parallel across some voltage through a common resistor. As the
voltage is raised, one tube will strike first, lowering the voltage
to its regulated value. This prevents the other tubes from firing
since the voltage has been reduced below their firing potential.
These units can be used in a one-shot multivibrator circuit.
See Fig. 4. This circuit generates a constant-width output pulse
and steepens the leading and trailing edges of a slow pulse input.
The one-shot circuit is made from the magnetic amplifier circuit
by adding a capacitor and resistor in series from the output to
the input. The diode is oriented for in-phase output. The output
pulse width is determined by the discharge time of the resistor
circuit is triggered by an input pulse which induces partial saturation.
Regeneration causes the carrier current to jump to the fully saturated
state. A change at the output is reflected back to the input where
it adds to the original input signal. This additive action takes
the output practically instantaneously to its saturated value, where
no further change is possible. While current from the capacitor
keeps the core saturated the output stays in the high state. But
as soon as the charge leaks off, the output drops back to the low
state. This circuit can put out 25-volt, 4-microsecond pulses into
a 1000-ohm load. This can be altered with bias changes. Bias can
also be used to cause the circuit to trigger at a particular point
on the input wave. The circuit shown requires a 15-volt positive
pulse drive and puts out a pulse 40-microseconds wide.
current discriminator, Fig. 5, which generates rapidly changing
waveforms from slowly varying input waveforms, can also be made
from these reactors. It is the analogue of the familiar vacuum-tube
voltage discriminator, or the Schmitt trigger circuit.
Ferristorized decimal counting unit (right) compared with the vacuum-tube
To form this circuit positive feedback is added to a magnetic
amplifier through a series resistor from the output to the input.
The diode rectifier is oriented for in-phase output. The discriminator
has two possible stable states, either high- or low-current output.
When the input current is above a certain value the output will
be saturated. When the input current is below another certain value
the output current is low and non-saturated. The circuit "hysteresis"
is the difference between these two input current values. The magnitude
of the hysteresis depends on the size of the feedback resistance.
When the value of input current is within the range of these values
the output state depends on whether the input was previously above
or below the "hysteresis" range. The change of state is caused by
regeneration. In the circuit shown the hysteresis is 130 microamperes.
The current discriminator may also be used as a pulse gate.
A d.c. bias fixes the static level of the control current without
input pulses. If the d.c. level is high the gate is "open," because
input pulses can reach the region of partial saturation to produce
output pulses. If the d.c. level is low the gate is "closed."
"Ferristor" reactors are very versatile. They can be used
in many circuits including oscillators, multivibrators, discriminators,
balanced or differential amplifiers, coincidence gates, ring counters,
binary counters, stepping registers, and many others.
reactors are almost completely unaffected by shock, vibration, temperature,
humidity, altitude, time, and the other things affecting vacuum
tubes. They are reactive rather than dissipative devices so they
generate little heat and there is practically no power waste. For
these reasons they should last almost indefinitely.
invention of the audion displaced the original magnetic amplifier
from favor. But now its modern descendant - the "Ferristor" reactor
- with its greater inherent ruggedness may replace the relatively
short-lived vacuum tube for certain applications requiring good
January 5, 2014