From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Metal filings coherer

The coherer is a primitive form of radio signal detector used in the first radio receivers during the wireless telegraphy era at the beginning of the 20th century. Invented around 1884 by Italian physicist, Temistocle Calzecchi-Onesti,[1] it consists of a tube or capsule containing two electrodes spaced a small distance apart, with metal filings in the space between them. When a radio frequency signal is applied to the device, the initial high resistance of the filings reduces, allowing an electric current to flow through it. The coherer was a key enabling technology for radio, and was the first device used to detect radio signals in practical spark gap transmitter wireless telegraphy. Beginning around 1890,[2] other research was performed by Oliver Lodge, Alexander Popov, Edouard Branly, and Guglielmo Marconi used it in the first historic experiments in radio communication, and it became the basis for radio reception, and remained in widespread use until about 1910. It was superseded by more sensitive electrolytic and crystal detectors and became obsolete, although in the 1950s a coherer was briefly used in at least one radio-controlled toy.[3]

There are two basic kinds of coherers: the original metal filings type and a later imperfect junction type.


Unlike modern AM radio stations that transmit a continuous radio frequency, whose amplitude (power) is modulated by an audio signal, the first radio transmitters transmitted information by Morse code, consisting of different length pulses of unmodulated carrier wave signal, "dots" and "dashes", that resulted from on-off keying. As a result, early radio receiving apparatus merely had to detect the presence or absence of the radio signal, not convert it to audio. The device that did this was called a detector. The coherer was the most successful of many detector devices that were tried in the early days of radio.

The basis for the operation of the coherer is that metal particles cohere (cling together) and conduct electricity much better after being subjected to radio frequency electricity. The radio signal from the antenna was applied directly across the coherer's electrodes. When the radio signal from a "dot" or "dash" came in, the coherer would become conductive. The coherer's electrodes were also attached to a DC circuit powered by a battery that created a "click" sound in earphones or a telegraph sounder, or a mark on a paper tape, to record the signal. Unfortunately, the reduction in the coherer's electrical resistance persisted after the radio signal was removed. This was a problem because the coherer had to be ready immediately to receive the next "dot" or "dash". Therefore a decoherer mechanism was added, to tap the coherer, mechanically disturbing the particles to reset it to the high resistance state.

Coherence of particles by radio waves is an obscure phenomenon that is not well understood even today. Recent experiments with particle coherers seem to have confirmed the hypothesis that the particles cohere by a micro-weld phenomenon caused by radio frequency electricity flowing across the small contact area between particles.[4][5] The underlying principle of so-called "imperfect contact" coherers is also not well understood, but may involve a kind of tunneling of charge carriers across an imperfect junction between conductors.


The coherer as developed by Marconi consisted of metal filings (dots) enclosed between two slanted electrodes (black) a few millimeters apart, connected to terminals.

The coherer used in practical receivers was a glass tube, sometimes evacuated, which was about half filled with sharply cut metal filings, often part silver and part nickel. Silver electrodes made contact with the metal particles on both ends. In some coherers the electrodes were slanted so the width of the gap occupied by the filings could be varied by rotating the tube about its long axis, thus adjusting its sensitivity to the prevailing conditions.

In operation, the coherer is included in two separate electrical circuits. One is the antenna-ground circuit shown in the untuned receiver circuit diagram below. The other is the battery-sounder relay circuit including battery B1 and relay R in the diagram. A radio signal from the antenna-ground circuit "turns on" the coherer, enabling current flow in the battery-sounder circuit, activating the sounder, S. The coils, L, act as RF chokes to prevent the RF signal power from leaking away through the relay circuit.

A radio receiver circuit using a coherer detector (C). The "tapper" (decoherer) is not shown.

One electrode, A, of the coherer, (C, in the left diagram) is connected to the antenna and the other electrode, B, to ground. A series combination of a battery, B1, and a relay, R, is also attached to the two electrodes. When the signal from a spark gap transmitter is received, the filings tend to cling to each other, reducing the resistance of the coherer. When the coherer conducts better, battery B1 supplies enough current through the coherer to activate relay R, which connects battery B2 to the telegraph sounder S, giving an audible click. In some applications, a pair of headphones replaced the telegraph sounder, being much more sensitive to weak signals, or a Morse recorder which recorded the dots and dashes of the signal on paper tape.

A coherer with electromagnet-operated "tapper" (decoherer), built by early radio researcher Emile Guarini around 1904.

The problem of the filings continuing to cling together after the removal of the signal was solved by tapping the coherer with a small arm attached to the sounder after the arrival of each signal, shaking the filings and raising the resistance of the coherer to the original value. This apparatus was called a decoherer. In practical implementations, the decoherer was the clapper of a door bell that was powered by the coherer current itself. This is referred to as 'decohering' the device and was subject to much innovation during the life of the popular use of this component. Tesla, for example, had the tube rotating continuously along its axis, following each successive activation.


Marconi's 1896 coherer receiver, at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science, UK. The coherer is on right, with the decoherer mechanism behind it. The relay is in the cylindrical metal container (center) to shield the coherer from the RF noise from its contacts.
Branly's coherer

In 1850 Pierre Guitard found that when dusty air was electrified, the particles of dust would tend to attach themselves together in the form of strings. Again, in 1879, it was observed[6] that drops of water from a small fountain, when exposed to the influence of a charged piece of sealing-wax, would not separate into small drops, but would cohere into large ones. Temistocle Calzecchi-Onesti performed the first experiments with the first coherer in 1884. He began his studies in this field in 1882, being led to undertake them by observing the anomalous change in the resistance of thin metallic films when exposed to electric sparks. Platinum deposited upon glass was first employed. The effect was at first attributed to the influence of the ultraviolet light of the spark. The variations in the resistance of metals in a finely divided state were even more striking, and were shown to be due to the action of the electrical, or Hertzian, waves of which the spark was the source. The further developments from these experiments led to the coherer. Later this simple device was patented for and employed by British radio pioneer Oliver Lodge in his researches, and formed an important part of Guglielmo Marconi's successful system of wireless telegraphy.

The circuit of a coherer receiver, that recorded the received code on a Morse paper tape recorder.

The coherer was replaced in receivers by the simpler and more sensitive crystal detector around 1907, and became obsolete. However, its usage in niche applications continued into the late 1950s-60s. Japanese tin-plate toy manufacturer Modern Toys used a spark-gap transmitter and coherer-based receiver in a range of radio-controlled (RC) toys, called Radicon (abbreviation for Radio-Controlled) toys. Several different types using the same RC system were commercially sold, including a Radicon Boat (very rare), Radicon Oldsmobile Car (rare) and a Radicon Bus (the most popular).

Imperfect junction coherer[edit]

There are several variations of what is known as the imperfect junction coherer. The principle of operation (microwelding) suggested above for the filings coherer may be less likely to apply to this type because there is no need for decohering. An iron and mercury variation on this device was used by Marconi for the first transatlantic radio message. An earlier form was invented by Jagdish Chandra Bose in 1899.[7] The device consisted of a small metallic cup containing a pool of mercury covered by a very thin insulating film of oil; above the surface of the oil, a small iron disc is suspended. By means of an adjusting screw the lower edge of the disc is made to touch the oil-covered mercury with a pressure small enough not to puncture the film of oil. Its principle of operation is not well understood. The action of detection occurs when the radio frequency signal somehow breaks down the insulating film of oil, allowing the device to conduct, operating the receiving sounder wired in series. This form of coherer is self-restoring and needs no decohering.

In 1899, Bose announced the development of an "iron-mercury-iron coherer with telephone detector" in a paper presented at the Royal Society, London.[8] He also later received U.S. Patent 755,840, "Detector for electrical disturbances" (1904), for a specific electromagnetic receiver.

Limitations of coherers[edit]

Coherers have difficulty discriminating between the impulsive signals of spark-gap transmitters, and other impulsive electrical noise:[9]

All was fish that came to the coherer net, and the recorder wrote down dot and dash combinations quite impartially for legitimate signals, static disturbances, a slipping trolley several blocks away, and even the turning on and off of lights in the building. Translation of the tape frequently required a brilliant imagination

Coherers were also finicky to adjust and not very sensitive. Another problem was that, because of the cumbersome mechanical "decohering" mechanism, the coherer was limited to a receiving speed of 12 - 15 words per minute of Morse code, while telegraph operators could send at rates of 50 WPM, and paper tape machines at 100 WPM.

More important for the future, the coherer could not detect AM (radio) transmissions. As a simple switch that registered the presence or absence of radio waves, the coherer could detect the on-off keying of wireless telegraphy transmitters, but it could not demodulate (rectify) the waveforms of AM radiotelephone signals, which began to be experimented with in the first years of the 20th century. This problem was solved by the rectification capability of Reginald Fessenden's hot wire barretter and electrolytic detector. These in turn were replaced by the crystal detector around 1906, and then around 1912 by vacuum tube technologies such as John Ambrose Fleming's thermionic diode and Lee De Forest's Audion (triode) tube.

One of the first coherers designed by Edouard Branly. Built by his assistant.
A "ball" coherer, designed by Branly in 1899. This imperfect contact type had a series of lightly touching metal balls between two electrodes.
Tripod coherer, built by Branly in 1902, another imperfect contact type. Although most coherers functioned as "switches" that turned on a DC current from a battery in the presence of radio waves, this may be one of the first rectifying (diode) detectors, because Branly reported it could produce a DC current without a battery.
Another tripod detector built by Branly

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Science of The Earth, vol 1. 
  2. ^ "Dizionario bibliogarfico Treccani". 
  3. ^ Lee, Thomas H. (2004). Planar Microwave Engineering: A Practical Guide to Theory, Measurement, and Circuits. London: Cambridge University Press. p. 11. ISBN 0521835267. 
  4. ^ E. Falcon, B. Castaing, and M. Creyssels: Nonlinear electrical conductivity in a 1D granular medium, Laboratoire de Physique de l’Ecole Normale Sup'erieure de Lyon UMR 5672 -46 all'ee d’Italie, 69007 Lyon, France
  5. ^ Falcona, Eric; Bernard Castaing (April 2005). "Electrical conductivity in granular media and Branly’s coherer: A simple experiment". American Journal of Physics (USA: American Association of Physics Teachers) 73 (4): 302–306. doi:10.1119/1.1848114. Retrieved 14 November 2013. 
  6. ^ Louis Derr, A.M., S.B., Cyclopedia of Engineering, American School of Correspondence of Armour Institute of Technology, Chicago, 1904
  7. ^ Bose article by Varun Aggarwal
  8. ^ Bondyopadhyay (1988)
  9. ^ quoted in Douglas, Alan (April 1981). "The crystal detector". IEEE Spectrum (New York: Inst. of Electrical and Electronic Engineers): 64. Retrieved 2010-03-14.  on Stay Tuned website

External links[edit]