Electronic oscillator

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An electronic oscillator is an electronic circuit that produces a periodic, oscillating electronic signal, often a sine wave or a square wave or a triangle wave.[1][2][3] Oscillators convert direct current (DC) from a power supply to an alternating current (AC) signal. They are widely used in many electronic devices ranging from simplest clock generators to digital instruments (like calculators) and complex computers and peripherals etc.[3] Common examples of signals generated by oscillators include signals broadcast by radio and television transmitters, clock signals that regulate computers and quartz clocks, and the sounds produced by electronic beepers and video games.[1]

Oscillators are often characterized by the frequency of their output signal:

  • A low-frequency oscillator (LFO) is an electronic oscillator that generates a frequency below approximately 20 Hz. This term is typically used in the field of audio synthesizers, to distinguish it from an audio frequency oscillator.
  • An audio oscillator produces frequencies in the audio range, about 16 Hz to 20 kHz.[2]
  • An RF oscillator produces signals in the radio frequency (RF) range of about 100 kHz to 100 GHz.[2]

In AC power supplies, an oscillator that produces AC power from a DC supply is usually called an inverter. Before the advent of diode-based rectifiers, an electromechanical device that similarly converted AC power to DC was called a converter,[4] though the term is now used more commonly to refer to DC-DC buck converters.

There are two main types of electronic oscillator – the linear or harmonic oscillator and the nonlinear or relaxation oscillator.[2][5]

Crystal oscillators are ubiquitous in modern electronics and produce frequencies from 32 kHz to over 150 MHz, with 32 kHz crystals commonplace in time keeping and the higher frequencies commonplace in clock generation and RF applications.

1 MHz electronic oscillator circuit which uses the resonant properties of an internal quartz crystal to control the frequency. Provides the clock signal for digital devices such as computers.

Harmonic oscillators[edit]

Block diagram of a feedback linear oscillator; an amplifier A with its output vo fed back into its input vf through a filter, β(jω).

The harmonic, or linear, oscillator produces a sinusoidal output.[2][5] There are two types:

Feedback oscillator[edit]

The most common form of linear oscillator is an electronic amplifier such as a transistor or operational amplifier connected in a feedback loop with its output fed back into its input through a frequency selective electronic filter to provide positive feedback. When the power supply to the amplifier is switched on initially, electronic noise in the circuit provides a non-zero signal to get oscillations started. The noise travels around the loop and is amplified and filtered until very quickly it converges on a sine wave at a single frequency.

Feedback oscillator circuits can be classified according to the type of frequency selective filter they use in the feedback loop:[2][5]

  • In an RC oscillator circuit, the filter is a network of resistors and capacitors.[2][5] RC oscillators are mostly used to generate lower frequencies, for example in the audio range. Common types of RC oscillator circuits are the phase shift oscillator and the Wien bridge oscillator. LR oscillators, using inductor and resistor filters also exist, however they are much less common due to the required size of an inductor to achieve a value appropriate for use at lower frequencies.

Two common LC oscillator circuits, the Hartley and Colpitts oscillators
  • In a crystal oscillator circuit the filter is a piezoelectric crystal (commonly a quartz crystal).[2][5] The crystal mechanically vibrates as a resonator, and its frequency of vibration determines the oscillation frequency. Crystals have a very high Q-factor and also better temperature stability than tuned circuits, so crystal oscillators have much better frequency stability than LC or RC oscillators. Crystal oscillators are the most common type of linear oscillator, used to stabilize the frequency of most radio transmitters, and to generate the clock signal in computers and quartz clocks. Crystal oscillators often use the same circuits as LC oscillators, with the crystal replacing the tuned circuit;[2] the Pierce oscillator circuit is also commonly used. Quartz crystals are generally limited to frequencies of 30 MHz or below.[2] Other types of resonators, dielectric resonators and surface acoustic wave (SAW) devices, are used to control higher frequency oscillators, up into the microwave range. For example, SAW oscillators are used to generate the radio signal in cell phones.[6]

Negative-resistance oscillator[edit]

(left) Typical block diagram of a negative resistance oscillator. In some types the negative resistance device is connected in parallel with the resonant circuit. (right) A negative-resistance microwave oscillator consisting of a Gunn diode in a cavity resonator. The negative resistance of the diode excites microwave oscillations in the cavity, which radiate out the aperture into a waveguide.

In addition to the feedback oscillators described above, which use two-port amplifying active elements such as transistors and operational amplifiers, linear oscillators can also be built using one-port (two terminal) devices with negative resistance,[2][5] such as magnetron tubes, tunnel diodes, IMPATT diodes and Gunn diodes. Negative-resistance oscillators are usually used at high frequencies in the microwave range and above, since at these frequencies feedback oscillators perform poorly due to excessive phase shift in the feedback path.

In negative-resistance oscillators, a resonant circuit, such as an LC circuit, crystal, or cavity resonator, is connected across a device with negative differential resistance, and a DC bias voltage is applied to supply energy. A resonant circuit by itself is "almost" an oscillator; it can store energy in the form of electronic oscillations if excited, but because it has electrical resistance and other losses the oscillations are damped and decay to zero. The negative resistance of the active device cancels the (positive) internal loss resistance in the resonator, in effect creating a resonator with no damping, which generates spontaneous continuous oscillations at its resonant frequency.

The negative-resistance oscillator model is not limited to one-port devices like diodes; feedback oscillator circuits with two-port amplifying devices such as transistors and tubes also have negative resistance.[7][8][9] At high frequencies, three terminal devices such as transistors and FETs are also used in negative resistance oscillators. At high frequencies these devices do not need a feedback loop, but with certain loads applied to one port can become unstable at the other port and show negative resistance due to internal feedback. The negative resistance port is connected to a tuned circuit or resonant cavity, causing them to oscillate.[7][8][10] High-frequency oscillators in general are designed using negative-resistance techniques.[7][8][9]

Some of the many harmonic oscillator circuits are listed below:

Active devices used in oscillators and approximate maximum frequencies[8]
Device Frequency
Triode vacuum tube ~1 GHz
Bipolar transistor (BJT) ~20 GHz
Heterojunction bipolar transistor (HBT) ~50 GHz
Metal–semiconductor field-effect transistor (MESFET) ~100 GHz
Gunn diode, fundamental mode ~100 GHz
Magnetron tube ~100 GHz
High electron mobility transistor (HEMT) ~200 GHz
Klystron tube ~200 GHz
Gunn diode, harmonic mode ~200 GHz
IMPATT diode ~300 GHz
Gyrotron tube ~600 GHz

Relaxation oscillator[edit]

A nonlinear or relaxation oscillator produces a non-sinusoidal output, such as a square, sawtooth or triangle wave.[5] It consists of an energy-storing element (a capacitor or, more rarely, an inductor) and a nonlinear switching device (a latch, Schmitt trigger, or negative-resistance element) connected in a feedback loop. The switching device periodically charges and discharges the energy stored in the storage element thus causing abrupt changes in the output waveform.

Square-wave relaxation oscillators are used to provide the clock signal for sequential logic circuits such as timers and counters, although crystal oscillators are often preferred for their greater stability. Triangle-wave or sawtooth oscillators are used in the timebase circuits that generate the horizontal deflection signals for cathode ray tubes in analogue oscilloscopes and television sets. They are also used in voltage-controlled oscillators (VCOs), inverters and switching power supplies, dual-slope analog to digital converters (ADCs), and in function generators to generate square and triangle waves for testing equipment. In general, relaxation oscillators are used at lower frequencies and have poorer frequency stability than linear oscillators.

Ring oscillators are built of a ring of active delay stages. Generally the ring has an odd number of inverting stages, so that there is no single stable state for the internal ring voltages. Instead, a single transition propagates endlessly around the ring.

Some of the more common relaxation oscillator circuits are listed below:

Voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO)[edit]

An oscillator can be designed so that the oscillation frequency can be varied over some range by an input voltage or current. These voltage controlled oscillators are widely used in phase-locked loops, in which the oscillator's frequency can be locked to the frequency of another oscillator. These are ubiquitous in modern communications circuits, used in filters, modulators, demodulators, and forming the basis of frequency synthesizer circuits which are used to tune radios and televisions.

Radio frequency VCOs are usually made by adding a varactor diode to the tuned circuit or resonator in an oscillator circuit. Changing the DC voltage across the varactor changes its capacitance, which changes the resonant frequency of the tuned circuit. Voltage controlled relaxation oscillators can be constructed by charging and discharging the energy storage capacitor with a voltage controlled current source. Increasing the input voltage increases the rate of charging the capacitor, decreasing the time between switching events.


The first practical oscillators were based on electric arcs, which were used for lighting in the 19th century. The current through an arc light is unstable due to its negative resistance, and often breaks into spontaneous oscillations, causing the arc to make hissing, humming or howling sounds[11] which had been noticed by Humphry Davy in 1821, Benjamin Silliman in 1822,[12] Auguste Arthur de la Rive in 1846,[13] and David Edward Hughes in 1878.[14] Ernst Lecher in 1888 showed that the current through an electric arc could be oscillatory.[15][16][17]

An oscillator was built by Elihu Thomson in 1892[18][19] by placing an LC tuned circuit in parallel with an electric arc and included a magnetic blowout. Independently, in the same year, George Francis FitzGerald realized that if the damping resistance in a resonant circuit could be made zero or negative, the circuit would produce oscillations, and, unsuccessfully, tried to build a negative resistance oscillator with a dynamo, what would now be called a parametric oscillator.[20][11] The arc oscillator was rediscovered and popularized by William Duddell in 1900.[21][22] Duddell, a student at London Technical College, was investigating the hissing arc effect. He attached an LC circuit (tuned circuit) to the electrodes of an arc lamp, and the negative resistance of the arc excited oscillation in the tuned circuit.[11] Some of the energy was radiated as sound waves by the arc, producing a musical tone. Duddell demonstrated his oscillator before the London Institute of Electrical Engineers by sequentially connecting different tuned circuits across the arc to play the national anthem "God Save the Queen".[11] Duddell's "singing arc" did not generate frequencies above the audio range. In 1902 Danish physicists Valdemar Poulsen and P. O. Pederson were able to increase the frequency produced into the radio range by operating the arc in a hydrogen atmosphere with a magnetic field, inventing the Poulsen arc radio transmitter, the first continuous wave radio transmitter, which was used through the 1920s.[23][24][25]

A 120 MHz oscillator from 1938 using a parallel rod transmission line resonator (Lecher line). Transmission lines are widely used for UHF oscillators.

The vacuum-tube feedback oscillator was invented around 1912, when it was discovered that feedback ("regeneration") in the recently invented audion vacuum tube could produce oscillations. At least six researchers independently made this discovery, although not all of them can be said to have a role in the invention of the oscillator.[26][27] In the summer of 1912, Edwin Armstrong observed oscillations in audion radio receiver circuits[28] and went on to use positive feedback in his invention of the regenerative receiver.[29][30] Austrian Alexander Meissner independently discovered positive feedback and invented oscillators in March 1913.[28][31] Irving Langmuir at General Electric observed feedback in 1913.[31] Fritz Lowenstein may have preceded the others with a crude oscillator in late 1911.[32] In Britain, H. J. Round patented amplifying and oscillating circuits in 1913.[28] In August 1912, Lee De Forest, the inventor of the audion, had also observed oscillations in his amplifiers, but he didn't understand the significance and tried to eliminate it[33][34] until he read Armstrong's patents in 1914,[35] which he promptly challenged.[36] Armstrong and De Forest fought a protracted legal battle over the rights to the "regenerative" oscillator circuit[36][37] which has been called "the most complicated patent litigation in the history of radio".[38] De Forest ultimately won before the Supreme Court in 1934 on technical grounds, but most sources regard Armstrong's claim as the stronger one.[34][36]

The first and most widely used relaxation oscillator circuit, the astable multivibrator, was invented in 1917 by French engineers Henri Abraham and Eugene Bloch.[39][40][41] They called their cross-coupled, dual-vacuum-tube circuit a multivibrateur, because the square-wave signal it produced was rich in harmonics,[40][41] compared to the sinusoidal signal of other vacuum-tube oscillators.

Vacuum-tube feedback oscillators became the basis of radio transmission by 1920. However, the triode vacuum tube oscillator performed poorly above 300 MHz because of interelectrode capacitance.[citation needed] To reach higher frequencies, new "transit time" (velocity modulation) vacuum tubes were developed, in which electrons traveled in "bunches" through the tube. The first of these was the Barkhausen–Kurz oscillator (1920), the first tube to produce power in the UHF range. The most important and widely used were the klystron (R. and S. Varian, 1937) and the cavity magnetron (J. Randall and H. Boot, 1940).

Mathematical conditions for feedback oscillations, now called the Barkhausen criterion, were derived by Heinrich Georg Barkhausen in 1921. The first analysis of a nonlinear electronic oscillator model, the Van der Pol oscillator, was done by Balthasar van der Pol in 1927.[42] He showed that the stability of the oscillations (limit cycles) in actual oscillators was due to the nonlinearity of the amplifying device. He originated the term "relaxation oscillation" and was first to distinguish between linear and relaxation oscillators. Further advances in mathematical analysis of oscillation were made by Hendrik Wade Bode and Harry Nyquist[43] in the 1930s. In 1969 K. Kurokawa derived necessary and sufficient conditions for oscillation in negative-resistance circuits,[44] which form the basis of modern microwave oscillator design.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Snelgrove, Martin (2011). "Oscillator". McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, 10th Ed., Science Access online service. McGraw-Hill. Archived from the original on July 19, 2013. Retrieved March 1, 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Chattopadhyay, D. (2006). Electronics (fundamentals And Applications). New Age International. pp. 224–225. ISBN 978-81-224-1780-7.
  3. ^ a b Horowitz, Paul; Hill, Winfield (2015). The Art of Electronics. USA. p. 425. ISBN 978-0-521-80926-9.
  4. ^ "Inverter frequently asked questions". www.powerstream.com. Retrieved 2020-11-13.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Garg, Rakesh Kumar; Ashish Dixit; Pavan Yadav (2008). Basic Electronics. Firewall Media. p. 280. ISBN 978-8131803028.
  6. ^ APITech. "SAW Technology". info.apitech.com. Retrieved 2021-05-12.
  7. ^ a b c Kung, Fabian Wai Lee (2009). "Lesson 9: Oscillator Design" (PDF). RF/Microwave Circuit Design. Prof. Kung's website, Multimedia University. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 22, 2015. Retrieved October 17, 2012., Sec. 3 Negative Resistance Oscillators, pp. 9–10, 14
  8. ^ a b c d Räisänen, Antti V.; Arto Lehto (2003). Radio Engineering for Wireless Communication and Sensor Applications. USA: Artech House. pp. 180–182. ISBN 978-1580535427.
  9. ^ a b Ellinger, Frank (2008). Radio Frequency Integrated Circuits and Technologies, 2nd Ed. USA: Springer. pp. 391–394. ISBN 978-3540693246.
  10. ^ a b Maas, Stephen A. (2003). Nonlinear Microwave and RF Circuits, 2nd Ed. Artech House. pp. 542–544. ISBN 978-1580534840.
  11. ^ a b c d Hong, Sungook (2001). Wireless: From Marconi's Black-Box to the Audion. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0262082983., pp. 161–165
  12. ^ Silliman, Benjamin (1859). First Principles of Physics: Or Natural Philosophy, Designed for the Use of Schools and Colleges. H.C. Peck & T. Bliss. p. 629. Davy Silliman Hissing.
  13. ^ "Wireless telephony, in theory and practice". N.Y. Van Nostrand. 1908.
  14. ^ Casperson, L. W (1991). "The humming telephone as an acoustic maser". Optical and Quantum Electronics. 23 (8): 995–1010. doi:10.1007/BF00611436. S2CID 119956732.
  15. ^ Anders, André (2009). Cathodic Arcs: From Fractal Spots to Energetic Condensation. Springer Science and Business Media. pp. 31–32. ISBN 978-0387791081.
  16. ^ Cady, W. G.; Arnold, H. D. (1907). "On the electric arc between metallic electrodes". American Journal of Science. 24 (143): 406. Retrieved April 12, 2017.
  17. ^ "Notes". The Electrical Review. 62 (1578): 812. February 21, 1908. Retrieved April 12, 2017.
  18. ^ Morse 1925, p. 23
  19. ^ US 500630, Thomson, Elihu, "Method of and Means for Producing Alternating Currents", published 18 July 1892, issued 4 July 1893 
  20. ^ G. Fitzgerald, On the Driving of Electromagnetic Vibrations by Electromagnetic and Electrostatic Engines, read at the January 22, 1892, meeting of the Physical Society of London, in Larmor, Joseph, ed. (1902). The Scientific Writings of the late George Francis Fitzgerald. London: Longmans, Green and Co. pp. 277–281.
  21. ^ Morse 1925, pp. 80–81
  22. ^ GB 190021629, Duddell, William du Bois, "Improvements in and connected with Means for the Conversion of Electrical Energy, Derived from a Source of Direct Current, into Varying or Alternating Currents", published 29 Nov 1900, issued 23 Nov 1901 
  23. ^ Morse 1925, p. 31
  24. ^ GB 190315599, Poulsen, Valdemar, "Improvements relating to the Production of Alternating Electric Currents", issued 14 July 1904 
  25. ^ US 789449, Poulsen, Valdemar, "Method of Producing Alternating Currents with a High Number of Vibrations", issued 9 May 1905 
  26. ^ Hempstead, Colin; William E. Worthington (2005). Encyclopedia of 20th-Century Technology. Vol. 2. Taylor & Francis. p. 648. ISBN 978-1579584641.
  27. ^ Hong 2001, p. 156
  28. ^ a b c Fleming, John Ambrose (1919). The Thermionic Valve and its Developments in Radiotelegraphy and Telephony. London: The Wireless Press. pp. 148–155.
  29. ^ Hong, Sungook (2003). "A history of the regeneration circuit: From invention to patent litigation" (PDF). IEEE. Retrieved August 29, 2012. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help), pp. 9–10
  30. ^ Armstrong, Edwin H. (September 1915). "Some recent developments in the Audion receiver" (PDF). Proc. IRE. 3 (9): 215–247. doi:10.1109/jrproc.1915.216677. S2CID 2116636. Retrieved August 29, 2012.
  31. ^ a b Hong 2003, p. 13
  32. ^ Hong 2003, p. 5
  33. ^ Hong 2003, pp. 6–7
  34. ^ a b Hijiya, James A. (1992). Lee De Forest and the Fatherhood of Radio. Lehigh University Press. pp. 89–90. ISBN 978-0934223232.
  35. ^ Hong 2003, p. 14
  36. ^ a b c Nahin, Paul J. (2001). The Science of Radio: With Matlab and Electronics Workbench Demonstration, 2nd Ed. Springer. p. 280. ISBN 978-0387951508.
  37. ^ Hong 2001, pp. 181–189
  38. ^ Hong 2003, p. 2
  39. ^ Abraham, H.; E. Bloch (1919). "Measurement of period of high frequency oscillations". Comptes Rendus. 168: 1105.
  40. ^ a b Glazebrook, Richard (1922). A Dictionary of Applied Physics, Vol. 2: Electricity. London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd. pp. 633–634.
  41. ^ a b Calvert, James B. (2002). "The Eccles-Jordan Circuit and Multivibrators". Dr. J. B. Calvert website, Univ. of Denver. Retrieved May 15, 2013.
  42. ^ Van der Pol, Balthazar (1927). "On relaxation-oscillations". The London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine. 2 (7): 978–992. doi:10.1080/14786442608564127.
  43. ^ Nyquist, H. (January 1932). "Regeneration Theory" (PDF). Bell System Tech. J. 11 (1): 126–147. doi:10.1002/j.1538-7305.1932.tb02344.x. S2CID 115002788. Retrieved December 5, 2012. on Alcatel-Lucent website
  44. ^ Kurokawa, K. (July 1969). "Some Basic Characteristics of Broadband Negative Resistance Oscillator Circuits" (PDF). Bell System Tech. J. 48 (6): 1937–1955. doi:10.1002/j.1538-7305.1969.tb01158.x. Retrieved December 8, 2012. Eq. 10 is a necessary condition for oscillation; eq. 12 is a sufficient condition,
  • Morse, A. H. (1925), Radio: Beam and Broadcast: Its story and patents, London: Ernest Benn. History of radio in 1925. Oscillator claims 1912; De Forest and Armstrong court case cf p. 45. Telephone hummer/oscillator by A. S. Hibbard in 1890 (carbon microphone has power gain); Larsen "used the same principle in the production of alternating current from a direct current source"; accidental development of vacuum tube oscillator; all at p. 86. Von Arco and Meissner first to recognize application to transmitter; Round for first transmitter; nobody patented triode transmitter at p. 87.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]