triode tetrode pentode

De Forest’s Audion tube came to be known as the triode tube, because it had three elements: filament, grid, and plate (just as the “di” in the name diode refers to two elements, filament and plate). Later developments in diode tube technology led to the refinement of the electron emitter: instead of using the filament directly as the emissive element, another metal strip called the cathode could be heated by the filament.
This refinement was necessary in order to avoid some undesired effects of an incandescent filament as an electron emitter. First, a filament experiences a voltage drop along its length, as current overcomes the resistance of the filament material and dissipates heat energy. This meant that the voltage potential between different points along the length of the filament wire and other elements in the tube would not be constant. For this and similar reasons, alternating current used as a power source for heating the filament wire would tend to introduce unwanted AC “noise” in the rest of the tube circuit. Furthermore, the surface area of a thin filament was limited at best, and limited surface area on the electron emitting element tends to place a corresponding limit on the tube’s current-carrying capacity.
The cathode was a thin metal cylinder fitting snugly over the twisted wire of the filament. The cathode cylinder would be heated by the filament wire enough to freely emit electrons, without the undesirable side effects of actually carrying the heating current as the filament wire had to. The tube symbol for a triode with an indirectly-heated cathode looks like this:

Since the filament is necessary for all but a few types of vacuum tubes, it is often omitted in the symbol for simplicity, or it may be included in the drawing but with no power connections drawn to it:

A simple triode circuit is shown to illustrate its basic operation as an amplifier:

The low-voltage AC signal connected between the grid and cathode alternately suppresses, then enhances the electron flow between cathode and plate. This causes a change in voltage on the output of the circuit (between plate and cathode). The AC voltage and current magnitudes on the tube’s grid are generally quite small compared with the variation of voltage and current in the plate circuit. Thus, the triode functions as an amplifier of the incoing AC signal (taking high-voltage, high-current DC power supplied from the large DC source on the right and “throttling” it by means of the tube’s controlled conductivity).
In the triode, the amount of current from cathode to plate (the “controlled” current is a function both of grid-to-cathode voltage (the controlling signal) and the plate-to-cathode voltage (the electromotive force available to push electrons through the vacuum). Unfortunately, neither of these independent variables have a purely linear effect on the amount of current through the device (often referred to simply as the “plate current”). That is, triode current does not necessarily respond in a direct, proportional manner to the voltages applied.
In this particular amplifier circuit the nonlinearities are compounded, as plate voltage (with respect to cathode) changes along with the grid voltage (also with respect to cathode) as plate current is throttled by the tube. The result will be an output voltage waveform that doesn’t precisely resemble the waveform of the input voltage. In other words, the quirkiness of the triode tube and the dynamics of this particular circuit will distort the waveshape. If we really wanted to get complex about how we stated this, we could say that the tube introduces harmonics by failing to exactly reproduce the input waveform.
Another problem with triode behavior is that of stray capacitance. Remember that any time we have two conductive surfaces separated by an insulating medium, a capacitor will be formed. Any voltage between those two conductive surfaces will generate an electric field within that insulating region, potentially storing energy and introducing reactance into a circuit. Such is the case with the triode, most problematically between the grid and the plate. It is as if there were tiny capacitors connected between the pairs of elements in the tube:

Now, this stray capacitance is quite small, and the reactive impedances usually high. Usually, that is, unless radio frequencies are being dealt with. As we saw with De Forest’s Audion tube, radio was probably the prime application for this new technology, so these “tiny” capacitances became more than just a potential problem. Another refinement in tube technology was necessary to overcome the limitations of the triode.

The tetrode

As the name suggests, the tetrode tube contained four elements: cathode (with the implicit filament, or “heater”), grid, plate, and a new element called the screen. Similar in construction to the grid, the screen was a wire mesh or coil positioned between the grid and plate, connected to a source of positive DC potential (with respect to the cathode, as usual) equal to a fraction of the plate voltage. When connected to ground through an external capacitor, the screen had the effect of electrostatically shielding the grid from the plate. Without the screen, the capacitive linking between the plate and the grid could cause significant signal feedback at high frequencies, resulting in unwanted oscillations.
The screen, being of less surface area and lower positive potential than the plate, didn’t attract many of the electrons passing through the grid from the cathode, so the vast majority of electrons in the tube still flew by the screen to be collected by the plate:

With a constant DC screen voltage, electron flow from cathode to plate became almost exclusively dependent upon grid voltage, meaning the plate voltage could vary over a wide range with little effect on plate current. This made for more stable gains in amplifier circuits, and better linearity for more accurate reproduction of the input signal waveform.
Despite the advantages realized by the addition of a screen, there were some disadvantages as well. The most significant disadvantage was related to something known as secondary emission. When electrons from the athode strike the plate at high velocity, they can cause free electrons to be jarred loose from atoms in the metal of the plate. These electrons, knocked off the plate by the impact of the cathode electrons, are said to be “secondarily emitted.” In a triode tube, secondary emission is not that great a problem, but in a tetrode with a positively-charged screen grid in close proximity, these secondary electrons will be attracted to the screen rather than the plate from which they came, resulting in a loss of plate current. Less plate current means less gain for the amplifier, which is not good.
Two different strategies were developed to address this problem of the tetrode tube: beam power tubes and pentodes. Both solutions resulted in new tube designs with approximately the same electrical characteristics.

Beam power tubes

In the beam power tube, the basic four-element structure of the tetrode was maintained, but the grid and screen wires were carefully arranged along with a pair of auxiliary plates to create an interesting effect: focused beams or “sheets” of electrons traveling from cathode to plate. These electron beams formed a stationary “cloud” of electrons between the screen and plate (called a “space charge”) which acted to repel secondary electrons emitted from the plate back to the plate. A set of “beam-forming” plates, each connected to the cathode, were added to help maintain proper electron beam focus. Grid and screen wire coils were arranged in such a way that each turn or wrap of the screen fell directly behind a wrap of the grid, which placed the screen wires in the “shadow” formed by the grid. This precise alignment enabled the screen to still perform its shielding function with minimal interference to the passage of electrons from cathode to plate.

This resulted in lower screen current (and more plate current!) than an ordinary tetrode tube, with little added expense to the construction of the tube.
Beam power tetrodes were often distinguished from their non-beam counterparts by a different schematic symbol, showing the beam-forming plates:

The pentode

Another strategy for addressing the problem of secondary electrons being attracted by the screen was the addition of a fifth wire element to the tube structure: a suppressor. These five-element tubes were naturally called pentodes.

The suppressor was another wire coil or mesh situated between the screen and the plate, usually connected directly to ground potential. In some pentode tube designs, the suppressor was internally connected to the cathode so as to minimize the number of connection pins having to penetrate the tube envelope:

The suppressor’s job was to repel any secondarily emitted electrons back to the plate: a structural equivalent of the beam power tube’s space charge. This, of course, increased plate current and decreased screen current, resulting in better gain and overall performance. In some instances it allowed for greater operating plate voltage as well.

Combination tubes

Similar in thought to the idea of the integrated circuit, tube designers tried integrating different tube functions into single tube envelopes to reduce space requirements in more modern tube-type electronic equipment. A common combination seen within a single glass shell was two either diodes or two triodes. The idea of fitting pairs of diodes inside a single envelope makes a lot of sense in light of power supply full-wave rectifier designs, always requiring multiple diodes.
Of course, it would have been quite impossible to combine thousands of tube elements into a single tube envelope the way that thousands of transistors can be etched onto a single piece of silicon, but engineers still did their best to push the limits of tbe miniaturization and consolidation. Some of these tubes, whimsically called compactrons, held four or more complete tube elements within a single envelope.
Sometimes the functions of two different tubes could be integrated into a single, combination tube in a way that simply worked more elegantly than two tubes ever could. An example of this was the pentagrid converter, more generally called a heptode, used in some superheterodyne radio designs. These tubes contained seven elements: 5 grids plus a cathode and a plate. Two of the grids were normally reserved for signal input, the other three relegated to screening and suppression (performance-enhancing) functions. Combining the superheterodyne functions of oscillator and signal mixer together in one tube, the signal coupling between these two stages was intrinsic. Rather than having separate oscillator and mixer circuits, the oscillator creating an AC voltage and the mixer “mixing” that voltage with another signal, the pentagrid converter’s oscillator section created an electron stream that oscillated in intensity which then directly passed through another grid for “mixing” with another signal.
This same tube was sometimes used in a different way: by applying a DC voltage to one of the control grids, the gain of the tube could be changed for a signal impressed on the other control grid. This was known as variable-mu operation, because the “mu” (µ) of the tube (its amplification factor, measured as a ratio of plate-to-cathode voltage change over grid-to-cathode voltage change with a constant plate current) could be altered at will by a DC control voltage signal.
Enterprising electronics engineers also discovered ways to exploit such multi-variable capabilities of “lesser” tubes such as tetrodes and pentodes. One such way was the so-called ultralinear audio power amplifier, invented by a pair of engineers named Hafler and Keroes, utilizing a tetrode tube in combination with a “tapped” output transformer to provide substantial improvements in amplifier linearity (decreases in distortion levels). Consider a “single-ended” triode tube amplifier with an output transformer coupling power to the speaker:

If we substitute a tetrode for a triode in this circuit, we will see improvements in circuit gain resulting from the electrostatic shielding offered by the screen, preventing unwanted feedback between the plate and control grid:

However, the tetrode’s screen may be used for functions other than merely shielding the grid from the plate. It can also be used as another control element, like the grid itself. If a “tap” is made on the transformer’s primary winding, and this tap connected to the screen, the screen will receive a voltage that varies with the signal being amplified (feedback). More specifically, the feedback signal is proportional to the rate-of-change of magnetic flux in the transformer core (dΦ/dt), thus improving the amplifier’s ability to reproduce the input signal waveform at the speaker terminals and not just in the primary winding of the transformer:

This signal feedback results in significant improvements in amplifier linearity (and consequently, distortion), so long as precautions are taken against “overpowering” the screen with too great a positive voltage with respect to the cathode. As a concept, the ultralinear (screen-feedback) design demonstrates the flexibility of operation granted by multiple grid-elements inside a single tube: a capability rarely matched by semiconductor components.
Some tube designs combined multiple tube functions in a most economic way: dual plates with a single cathode, the currents for each of the plates controlled by separate sets of control grids. Common examples of these tubes were triode-heptode and triode-hexode tubes (a hexode tube is a tube with four grids, one cathode, and one plate.
Other tube designs simply incorporated separate tube structures inside a single glass envelope for greater economy. Dual diode (rectifier) tubes were quite common, as were dual triode tubes, especially when the power dissipation of each tube was relatively low.

The 12AX7 and 12AU7 models are common examples of dual-triode tubes, both of low-power rating. The 12AX7 is especially common as a preamplifier tube in electric guitar amplifier circuits.