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This day in tech: Thomas Edison observes the Edison effect - February 13, 1880
The classical example of thermionic emission is the emission of electrons from a hot metal cathode into a vacuum (archaically known as the Edison effect) in a vacuum tube. However, the term "thermionic emission" is now used to refer to any thermally excited charge emission process, even when the charge is emitted from one solid-state region into another. This process is crucially important in the operation of a variety of electronic devices and can be used for power generation or cooling. The magnitude of the charge flow increases dramatically with increasing temperature. However, vacuum emission from metals tends to become significant only for temperatures over 1000 K. The science dealing with this phenomenon has been known as thermionics, but this name seems to be gradually falling into disuse.
The phenomenon was initially reported in 1873 by Frederick Guthrie in Britain. While doing work on charged objects, Guthrie discovered that a red-hot iron sphere with a positive charge would lose its charge (by somehow discharging it into air). He also found that this did not happen if the sphere had a negative charge. Other early contributors included Hittorf (1869?1883), Goldstein (1885), and Elster and Geitel (1882?1889).
The Edison effect in a diode tube. A diode tube is connected in two configurations, one has a flow of electrons and the other does not. Note that the arrows represent electron current, not conventional current.
The effect was rediscovered by Thomas Edison on February 13, 1880, while trying to discover the reason for breakage of lamp filaments and uneven blackening (darkest near one terminal of the filament) of the bulbs in his incandescent lamps.
Closeup of the filament on a low pressure mercury gas discharge lamp showing white thermionic emission mix coating on the central portion of the coil. Typically made of a mixture of barium, strontium and calcium oxides, the coating is sputtered away through normal use, often eventually resulting in lamp failure.
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