Cavity magnetron

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Magnetron with section removed to exhibit the cavities. The cathode in the center is not visible. The waveguide emitting microwaves is at the left. The magnet producing a field parallel to the long axis of the device is not shown.
A similar magnetron with a different section removed. Central cathode is visible; antenna conducting microwaves at the top; magnet is not shown.

The cavity magnetron is a high-powered vacuum tube that generates microwaves using the interaction of a stream of electrons with a magnetic field. The first form of magnetron tube, the split-anode magnetron, was invented by Albert Hull in 1920, but it wasn't capable of high frequencies and was little used. The modern 'resonant' cavity magnetron tube was invented by John Randall and Harry Boot in 1940 at the University of Birmingham, England.1 The high power of pulses from the cavity magnetron made centimeter-band radar practical, with shorter wavelength radars allowing detection of smaller objects. The compact cavity magnetron tube drastically reduced the size of radar sets2 so that they could be installed in anti-submarine aircraft3 and escort ships.2 At present, cavity magnetrons are commonly used in microwave ovens and in various radar applications.4

Construction and operation

All cavity magnetrons consist of a hot cathode with a high (continuous or pulsed) negative potential created by a high-voltage, direct-current power supply. The cathode is built into the center of an evacuated, lobed, circular chamber. A magnetic field parallel to the filament is imposed by a permanent magnet. The magnetic field causes the electrons, attracted to the (relatively) positive outer part of the chamber, to spiral outward in a circular path, a consequence of the Lorentz force. Spaced around the rim of the chamber are cylindrical cavities. The cavities are open along their length and connect the common cavity space. As electrons sweep past these openings, they induce a resonant, high-frequency radio field in the cavity, which in turn causes the electrons to bunch into groups. (This principle of cavity resonator is very similar to blowing a stream of air across the open top of a glass pop bottle.) A portion of the field is extracted with a short antenna that is connected to a waveguide (a metal tube usually of rectangular cross section). The waveguide directs the extracted RF energy to the load, which may be a cooking chamber in a microwave oven or a high-gain antenna in the case of radar.

A cross-sectional diagram of a resonant cavity magnetron. Magnetic lines of force are parallel to the geometric axis of this structure.

The sizes of the cavities determine the resonant frequency, and thereby the frequency of emitted microwaves. However, the frequency is not precisely controllable. The operating frequency varies with changes in load impedance, with changes in the supply current, and with the temperature of the tube.5 This is not a problem in uses such as heating, or in some forms of radar where the receiver can be synchronized with an imprecise magnetron frequency. Where precise frequencies are needed, other devices such as the klystron are used.

The magnetron is a self-oscillating device requiring no external elements other than a power supply. A well-defined threshold anode voltage must be applied before oscillation will build up; this voltage is a function of the dimensions of the resonant cavity, and the applied magnetic field. In pulsed applications there is a delay of several cycles before the oscillator achieves full peak power, and the build-up of anode voltage must be coordinated with the build-up of oscillator output.5

Where there are an even number of cavities, two concentric rings can connect alternate cavity walls to prevent inefficient modes of oscillation. This is called Pi strapping because the two straps lock the phase difference between adjacent cavities at Pi radians (180°).

The magnetron is a fairly efficient device. In a microwave oven, for instance, a 1.1 kilowatt input will generally create about 700 watts of microwave power, an efficiency of around 65%. (The high-voltage and the properties of the cathode determine the power of a magnetron.) Large S band magnetrons can produce up to 2.5 megawatts peak power with an average power of 3.75 kW.5 Large magnetrons can be water cooled. The magnetron remains in widespread use in roles which require high power, but where precise frequency control is unimportant.


Magnetron from a microwave oven with magnet in its mounting box. The horizontal plates form a heat sink, cooled by airflow from a fan. The magnetic field is produced by two powerful ring magnets, the lower of which is just visible.


In radar devices, the waveguide is connected to an antenna. The magnetron is operated with very short pulses of applied voltage, resulting in a short pulse of high power microwave energy being radiated. As in all primary radar systems, the radiation reflected off a target is analyzed to produce a radar map on a screen.

Several characteristics of the magnetron's power output conspire to make radar use of the device somewhat problematic. The first of these factors is the magnetron's inherent instability in its transmitter frequency. This instability is noted not only as a frequency shift from one pulse to the next, but also a frequency shift within an individual transmitted pulse. The second factor is that the energy of the transmitted pulse is spread over a wide frequency spectrum, which makes necessary its receiver to have a corresponding wide selectivity. This wide selectivity allows ambient electrical noise to be accepted into the receiver, thus obscuring somewhat the received radar echoes, thereby reducing overall radar performance. The third factor, depending on application, is the radiation hazard caused by the use of high power electromagnetic radiation. In some applications, for example a marine radar mounted on a recreational vessel, a radar with a magnetron output of 2 to 4 kilowatts is often found mounted very near an area occupied by crew or passengers. In practical use, these factors have been overcome, or merely accepted, and there are today thousands of magnetron aviation and marine radar units in service. Recent advances in aviation weather avoidance radar and in marine radar have successfully implemented semiconductor transmitters that eliminate the magnetron entirely.


In microwave ovens, the waveguide leads to a radio frequency-transparent port into the cooking chamber.


In microwave-excited lighting systems, such as a sulfur lamp, a magnetron provides the microwave field that is passed through a waveguide to the lighting cavity containing the light-emitting substance (e.g., sulfur, metal halides, etc.)


The first simple, two-pole magnetron was developed in 1920 by Albert Hull6 at General Electric's Research Laboratories (Schenectady, New York), as an outgrowth of his work on the magnetic control of vacuum tubes in an attempt to work around the patents held by Lee De Forest on electrostatic control.

Hull's magnetron was not originally intended to generate VHF (very-high-frequency) electromagnetic waves. However, in 1924, Czech physicist August Žáček7 (1886–1961) and German physicist Erich Habann8 (1892–1968) independently discovered that the magnetron could generate waves of 100 megahertz to 1 gigahertz. Žáček, a professor at Prague's Charles University, published first; however, he published in a journal with a small circulation and thus attracted little attention.9 Habann, a student at the University of Jena, investigated the magnetron for his doctoral dissertation of 1924.10 Throughout the 1920s, Hull and other researchers around the world worked to develop the magnetron.111213 Most of these early magnetrons were glass vacuum tubes with multiple anodes. However, the two-pole magnetron, also known as a split-anode magnetron, had relatively low efficiency. The cavity version (properly referred to as a resonant-cavity magnetron) proved to be far more useful. In 1937-1940 a multi-cavity magnetron was built by the British physicist Sir John Turton Randall, FRSE, together with a team of British coworkers, for the British and American military radar installations in World War II.14

While radar was being developed during World War II, there arose an urgent need for a high-power microwave generator that worked at shorter wavelengths (around 10 cm (3 GHz)) rather than the 150 cm (200 MHz) that was available from tube-based generators of the time. It was known that a multi-cavity resonant magnetron had been developed and patented in 1935 by Hans Hollmann in Berlin.15 However, the German military considered the frequency drift of Hollman's device to be undesirable, and based their radar systems on the klystron instead. But klystrons could not at that time achieve the high power output that magnetrons eventually reached. This was one reason that German night fighter radars were not a match for their British counterparts.16

The anode block which is part of the cavity magnetron developed by John Randall and Harry Boot in 1940 at the University of Birmingham.

In 1940, at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, John Randall and Harry Boot produced a working prototype similar to Hollman's cavity magnetron, but added liquid cooling and a stronger cavity. Randall and Boot soon managed to increase its power output 100 fold. Instead of abandoning the magnetron due to its frequency instability, they sampled the output signal and synchronized their receiver to whatever frequency was actually being generated. In 1941, the problem of frequency instability was solved by coupling ("strapping") alternate cavities within the magnetron. (For an overview of early magnetron designs, including that of Boot and Randall, see 17)

Because France had just fallen to the Nazis and Britain had no money to develop the magnetron on a massive scale, Churchill agreed that Sir Henry Tizard should offer the magnetron to the Americans in exchange for their financial and industrial help (the Tizard Mission). An early 6 kW version, built in England by the General Electric Company Research Laboratories, Wembley, London (not to be confused with the similarly named American company General Electric), was given to the US government in September 1940. At the time the most powerful equivalent microwave producer available in the US (a klystron) had a power of only ten watts. The cavity magnetron was widely used during World War II in microwave radar equipment and is often credited with giving Allied radar a considerable performance advantage over German and Japanese radars, thus directly influencing the outcome of the war. It was later described by America as "the most valuable cargo ever brought to our shores".18

The Bell Telephone Laboratories made a producible version from the magnetron delivered to America by the Tizard Mission, and before the end of 1940, the Radiation Laboratory had been set up on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop various types of radar using the magnetron. By early 1941, portable centimetric airborne radars were being tested in American and British aircraft.19 In late 1941, the Telecommunications Research Establishment in Great Britain used the magnetron to develop a revolutionary airborne, ground-mapping radar codenamed H2S. The H2S radar was in part developed by Alan Blumlein and Bernard Lovell.

Centimetric radar, made possible by the cavity magnetron, allowed for the detection of much smaller objects and the use of much smaller antennas. The combination of small-cavity magnetrons, small antennas, and high resolution allowed small, high quality radars to be installed in aircraft. They could be used by maritime patrol aircraft to detect objects as small as a submarine periscope, which allowed aircraft to attack and destroy submerged submarines which had previously been undetectable from the air. Centimetric contour mapping radars like H2S improved the accuracy of Allied bombers used in the strategic bombing campaign. Centimetric gun-laying radars were likewise far more accurate than the older technology. They made the big-gunned Allied battleships more deadly and, along with the newly developed proximity fuze, made anti-aircraft guns much more dangerous to attacking aircraft. The two coupled together and used by anti-aircraft batteries, placed along the flight path of German V-1 flying bombs on their way to London, are credited with destroying many of the flying bombs before they reached their target.

Since then, many millions of cavity magnetrons have been manufactured; while some have been for radar the vast majority have been for microwave ovens. The use in radar itself has dwindled to some extent, as more accurate signals have generally been needed and developers have moved to klystron and traveling-wave tube systems for these needs.

Health hazards

Caution: radiowaves hazard
Caution: Poisonous particles for the lungs

Among more speculative hazards, at least one in particular is well known and documented. As the lens of the eye has no cooling blood flow, it is particularly prone to overheating when exposed to microwave radiation. This heating can in turn lead to a higher incidence of cataracts in later life.20 A microwave oven with a warped door or poor microwave sealing can be hazardous.

There is also a considerable electrical hazard around magnetrons, as they require a high voltage power supply.

Some magnetrons have beryllium oxide (beryllia) ceramic insulators, which are dangerous if crushed and inhaled, or otherwise ingested. Single or chronic exposure can lead to berylliosis, an incurable lung condition. In addition, beryllia is listed as a confirmed human carcinogen by the IARC; therefore, broken ceramic insulators or magnetrons should not be directly handled.

Grindell Matthews described losing the sight in one eye while testing his "Death Ray" in the 1920s which lends credence to the theory that it was based on a primitive magnetroncitation needed albeit based on trial and error rather than the scientific method.

See also


  1. ^ "The Magnetron". Bournemouth University. 1995–2009. Retrieved 23 August 2009. 
  2. ^ a b Schroter, B. (Spring 2008). "How important was Tizard’s Box of Tricks?". Imperial Engineer 8: 10. Retrieved 2009-08-23. 
  3. ^ "Who Was Alan Dower Blumlein?". Dora Media Productions. 1999–2007. Retrieved 23 August 2009. 
  4. ^ Ma, L. "3D Computer Modeling of Magnetrons." University of London Ph.D. Thesis. December 2004. Accessed 2009-08-23.
  5. ^ a b c L.W. Turner,(ed), Electronics Engineer's Reference Book, 4th ed. Newnes-Butterworth, London 1976 ISBN 0 408 00168, pages 7-71 to 7-77
  6. ^ Albert W. Hull, "The effect of a uniform magnetic field on the motion of electrons between coaxial cylinders," Physical Review, vol. 18, no. 1, pages 31-57 (1921). See also: Albert W. Hull, "The magnetron," Journal of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, vol. 40, no. 9, pages 715-723 (September 1921).
  7. ^ Biographical information about August Žáček: (1) R. H. Fürth, Obituary: "Prof. August Žáček," Nature, vol. 193, no. 4816, page 625 (1962); and (2) "The 70th birthday of Prof. Dr. August Žáček," Czechoslovak Journal of Physics, vol. 6, no. 2, pages 204-205 (1956). (For ref. (2), see: .)
  8. ^ Biographical information about Erich Habann: Günter Nagel, "Pionier der Funktechnik. Das Lebenswerk des Wissenschaftlers Erich Habann, der in Hessenwinkel lebte, ist heute fast vergessen" (Pioneer in Radio Technology. The life's work of scientist Erich Habann, who lived in Hessenwinkel, is nearly forgotten today.), Bradenburger Blätter (supplement of the Märkische Oderzeitung, a daily newspaper of the city of Frankfurt in the state of Brandenburg, Germany), 15 December 2006, page 9. See also: Rainer Karlsch and Heiko Petermann, ed.s, Für und Wider "Hitlers Bombe": Studien zur Atomforschung in Deutschland [For and Against "Hitler's Bomb": Studies on atomic research in Germany] (N.Y., N.Y.: Waxmann Publishing Co., 2007), page 251 footnote.
  9. ^ A. Žáček, "Nová metoda k vytvorení netlumenych oscilací" ["New method of generating undamped oscillations"], Časopis pro pěstování matematiky a fysiky [Journal for the Cultivation of Mathematics and Physics], vol. 53, pages 378-380 (May 1924). (Available on-line (in Czech) at: .) See also: A. Žáček, "Über eine Methode zur Erzeugung von sehr kurzen elektromagnetischen Wellen" [On a method for generating very short electromagnetic waves], Zeitschrift für Hochfrequenztechnik [Journal for High Frequency Technology], vol. 32, pages 172-180 (1928). A. Žáček, "Spojení pro výrobu elektrických vln" ["Circuit for production of electrical waves"], Czechoslovak patent no. 20,293 (filed: 31 May 1924; issued: 15 February 1926). Available on-line (in Czech): .
  10. ^ Erich Habann, "Eine neue Generatorröhre" [A new generator tube], Zeitschrift für Hochfrequenztechnik, vol. 24, pages 115-120 and 135-141 (1924)
  11. ^ W. Kaiser, "The Development of Electron Tubes and of Radar technology: The Relationship of Science and Technology," pp. 217 - 236 in O. Blumtritt, H. Petzold and W. Aspray, eds., Tracking the History of Radar, IEEE, Piscataway, NJ, USA, 1994
  12. ^ James E. Brittain, "The magnetron and the beginnings of the microwave age," Physics Today, vol. 38, pages 60-67 (1985).
  13. ^ See for example: (1) Soviet physicists: (i) Abram A. Slutskin and Dmitry S. Shteinberg, ["Obtaining oscillations in cathode tubes with the aid of a magnetic field"], Zhurnal Russkogo Fiziko-Khimicheskogo Obshchestva Journal of the Russian Physico-Chemical Society, vol. 58, no. 2, pages 395-407 (1926); (ii) Abram A. Slutskin and Dmitry S. Shteinberg, ["Electronic oscillations in two-electrode tubes"], Ukrainski Fizychni Zapysky Ukrainian Journal of Physics, vol. 1, no. 2, pages 22-27 (1927); (iii) A. A. Slutzkin and D. S. Steinberg, "Die Erzeugung von kurzwelligen ungedämpften Schwingungen bei Anwendung des Magnetfeldes" ["The generation of undamped shortwave oscillations by application of a magnetic field"], Annalen der Physik, vol. 393, no. 5, pages 658-670 (May 1929).
    (2) Japanese engineers: Hidetsugu Yagi, "Beam transmission of ultra-short waves," Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers, vol. 16, no. 6, pages 715-741 (1928). Magnetrons are discussed in Part II of this article. See also: (i) Kinjiro Okabe, ["Production of intense extra-short radio waves by a split-anode magnetron (Part 3)"], Journal of the Institute of Electrical Engineering of Japan, pages 284ff (March 1928); (ii) Kinjiro Okabe, "On the short-wave limit of magnetron oscillations," Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers, vol. 17, no. 4, pages 652-659 (1929); (iii) Kinjiro Okabe, "On the magnetron oscillation of new type," Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers, vol. 18, no. 10, pages 1748-1749 (1930).
  14. ^ "Radar Recollections - A Bournemouth University/CHiDE/HLF project" by a similar multi-cavity magnetron built by Prof. W. E. Burcham
  15. ^ US 2123728  Hans Erich Hollmann/Telefunken GmbH: „Magnetron“ filed November 27, 1935
  16. ^ W. Kaiser, "The Development of Electron Tubes and of Radar technology: The Relationship of Science and Technology," pp. 217 - 236 in O. Blumtritt, H. Petzold and W. Aspray, eds., Tracking the History of Radar, IEEE, Piscataway, NJ, USA, 1994:229
  17. ^ Willshaw, W. E.; L. Rushforth, A. G. Stainsby, R. Latham, A. W. Balls, A. H. King (1946). "The high-power pulsed magnetron: development and design for radar applications". The Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers - Part IIIA: Radiolocation 93 (5). doi:10.1049/ji-3a-1.1946.0188. Retrieved 22 June 2012. 
  18. ^ James Phinney Baxter III (Official Historian of the Office of Scientific Research and Development), Scientists Against Time (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1946), page 142.
  19. ^ Angela Hind (February 5, 2007). "Briefcase 'that changed the world'". BBC News. Retrieved 2007-08-16. 
  20. ^ Lipman, R. M.; B. J. Tripathi, R. C. Tripathi (1988). "Cataracts induced by microwave and ionizing radiation". Survey of Ophthalmology 33 (3): 200–210. doi:10.1016/0039-6257(88)90088-4. OSTI 6071133. PMID 3068822. 

External links

  • US 2123728  Hans Erich Hollmann/Telefunken GmbH: „Magnetron“ filed November 27, 1935
  • US 2315313  Buchholz, H. (1943). Cavity resonator
  • US 2357313  Carter, P.S. (1944). High frequency resonator and circuit therefor
  • US 2357314  Carter, P.S. (1944). Cavity resonator circuit
  • US 2408236  Spencer, P.L. (1946). Magnetron casing
  • US 2444152  Carter, P.S. (1948). Cavity resonator circuit
  • US 2611094  Rex, H.B. (1952). Inductance-capacitance resonance circuit
  • GB 879677  Dexter, S.A. (1959). Valve oscillator circuits; radio frequency output couplings

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