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Valve amplification: Hybrid designs

All modern vacuum tubes are based on the concept of the Audion - a heated "cathode" boils off electrons into a vacuum; they pass through a grid (or many grids), which control the electron current; the electrons then strike the anode (plate) and are absorbed. By designing the cathode, grid(s) and plate properly, the tube will make a small AC signal voltage into a larger AC voltage, thus amplifying it. (By comparison, today's transistor makes use of electric fields in a crystal which has been specially processed--a much less obvious kind of amplifier, though much more important in today's world.)

A typical modern vacuum tube is a glass bulb with wires passing through its bottom, and connecting to the various electrodes inside. Before the bulb is sealed, a powerful vacuum pump sucks all the air and gases out. This requires special pumps which can make very "hard" vacuums. To make a good tube, the pump must make a vacuum with no more than a millionth of the air pressure at sea level (one microTorr, in official technical jargon).

The "harder" the vacuum, the better the tube will work and the longer it will last. Making an extremely hard vacuum in a tube is a lengthy process, so most modern tubes compromise at a level of vacuum that is adequate for the tube's application.