Thermo-Electric Generators

Gallery opened: Nov 2004

Updated: 31 Dec 2017

Watt thermopile added
Becquerel corrected
The Pouillet Thermopile: c1840
The Watt Thermopile: 1851 NEW
The Ruhmkorff Thermopile: c1860
The Markus Thermopile: 1864
The Becquerel Thermopile: 1864 Updated
The Clamond Thermopile: 1874
The Noe Thermopile: 18??
The Hauck Thermopile: 18??
Dr Stone on thermopiles: 1875
The Cox Thermopile: 1890
The Gulcher Thermopile: 1898
The English Mechanic thermopile: 1898
Early gas supplies
The Thermattaix: 1925
The Cardiff Gas Light & Coke Co: 1930s
The Russian Lamp: 1959
Thermo-Electric Generators Today
The Biolite Stove: 2010
The Lufo Lamp: 2013
The Curiosity Mars Rover power unit: 2011
Back to Home PageBack to The Museum

Thermo-electric generators convert heat directly into electricity, using the voltage generated at the junction of two different metals. This sounds like an excellent way to generate electric power; there are no moving parts, no working fluids, and very little to go wrong. Unfortunately the process is inefficent, and is not going to displace steam turbines. The output is DC, which is not helpful if you want to use a transformer to change the voltage. Nonetheless, thermoelectric generators were and are used where their special characteristics are needed.

Left: Thomas Johann Seebeck (1770-1831)

The history of thermoelectric generation begins in 1821 when Thomas Seebeck found that an electrical current would flow in a circuit made from two dissimilar metals, with the junctions at different temperatures. This is called the Seebeck effect. Apart from power generation, it is the basis for the thermocouple, a widely used method of temperature measurement.

The voltage produced is proportional to the temperature difference between the two junctions. The proportionality constant a is called the Seebeck coefficient.

A series-connected array of thermocouples was known as a "thermopile", by analogy with the Voltaic pile, a chemical battery with the elements stacked on top of each other. The Danish physicist Oersted and the French physicist J B J Fourier built the first thermo-electric pile in about 1823, using pairs of small antimony and bismuth bars welded in series. The thermopile was further developed by Leopoldo Nobili (1784-1835)and Macedonio Melloni (1798-1854). It was initially used for measurements of temperature and infra-red radiation, but was also rapidly put to use as a stable supply of electricity for other physics experimentation.

Left: Georg Simon Ohm (1789-1854)

George Simon Ohm was probably the most famous thermopile user. In 1825 he was working on the relationship between current and voltage by connecting wires of differing resistance across a voltaic pile- pretty near short-circuiting it. After an initial surge of current rapid polarization of the pile caused the voltage to decrease steadily, greatly complicating the measurements. Ohm took a colleague's advice and replaced the voltaic pile with a thermopile, and the results were much better.

This use of a thermopile is only four years after the discovery of the Seebeck effect, so the idea of the thermopile must have been quickly developed. I have not so far been able to identify the first use of the effect for power generation rather than measurement, but this case must be a candidate.

As an aside, Ohm's law met with a very cool reception in his own country; one account soberly states: "Unfortunately, Ohm's law was met with resistance." The Prussian minister of education pronounced that "a professor who preached such heresies was unworthy to teach science." This is the sort of thing that happens when politicians try to involve themselves in science, and in that respect we have progressed little since then.


Not a great deal seems to have been written on thermopiles. For a long time the best reference I found was in Volume 4 of 'Electrical Installations' by Rankin Kennedy, who was not a rastafarian. (Caxton Publishing Co., London 1903) p105-117. Rankin Kennedy (c1854-1917) was a consulting engineer (electrical), an inventor and a prolific author. For biographical details, see his obituary in The Engineer for 27 April, 1917.

At a book fair in November 2017, I discovered a book called 'Electro Deposition of Gold Silver Copper Nickel Etc Etc' by A Watt (yes, Watt) which is a detailed manual on electroplating. It was published by Crosby Lockwood & Son in 1889. Chapter 3 is devoted to 'Thermo-Electricity' and is the source of all the recent additions to this page.

Here are displayed some early thermo-electric generators or "thermopiles". I have tried to put them in chronological order but not all have a definite date, so this is rather iffy.
The maximum power is obtained from a thermopile when its load resistance is equal to its internal resistance, as with all electrical sources. Since the internal resistance of a chain of thermocouples is very low, this means that it can supply big currents but only low voltages, unless a large number are wired in series.

Left: Thermopile by Pouillet: circa 1840.

This, I think, is the earliest thermopile I have found so far. Unfortunately I have no details on it, and its operation is obscure. It is not clear where the heat is applied; perhaps one brass tank held hot water and the other cold? If so, that would be a much less effective source of heat than a gas flame.

In each tank, one of the L-shaped pipes appears to go into a glass vessel, for reasons unknown.

Example in CNAM, the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, in Paris. Author's photograph.

Left: Claude-Servais-Mathias Pouillet: (1790-1868)

Claude Pouillet (1790-1868) was a pioneer in the detection of infra-red radiation. He used a "pyroheliometer"- essentially a water calorimeter- to measure the intensity of solar radiation. The apparatus shown above is NOT the pyroheliometer; however it may be some sort of measuring instrument rather than a power source as such.

Left: Thermopile by Charles Watt: 1851

Charles Watt was the brother of Alexander Watt, author of 'Electro-Deposition' as noted above. He attempted to build the pile shown here, involving 2000 pairs of bismuth-antimony junctions. Alexander reports in his book:

" a difficulty arose in its construction owing to the very fragile nature of the metals, when combied in an extended series. Each pair of plates having to be united with pewter solder, it was found to be exceedingly difficult to complete even a single row of couples without an accidental fracture, or fusion of the bismuth when soldering the junctions, and after many attempts the construction of the battery had to be abandoned."

Alexander Watt was however made of sterner stuff, and by the use of jigging and some virtuouso soldering, managed to build a version of the pile in 1853. It took eight weeks.

The thermoelectric junctions have their hot ends immersed in oil in tank A, which is kept hot by gas-jets underneath. The cold junctions faced upwards and were cooled by the belt-driven fan above it; we are not told what turned the fan.

Many details of the construction are given but there is not a word on its performance; perhaps it was not good.

From 'Electro Deposition of Gold Silver Copper Nickel Etc Etc' by Alexander Watt, 1889.

Left: Thermopile by Ruhmkorff: circa 1860

The gas burners are inside the black body of the device; the spigot for the gas supply pipe is at lower left. The brass tanks hold the cooling water for the cold junctions.

An interesting feature is the sliding contact at the top, which allows the output voltage to be altered by connecting a variable number of junctions into the circuit. The output terminals are at top right.

Heinrich Daniel Ruhmkorff, electrical researcher and instrument maker, is best known for the remarkable improvements he made in the induction coil. However, it appears he was also in the thermopile business. Ruhmkorff was born on 15 January 1803, in Hanover, Germany, and died 20 December 1877, in Paris.

Example in CNAM, the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, in Paris. Author's photograph.

Left: Markus's thermopile: 1864

The EMF of a single couple was quoted as "One-twentieth of a Daniel cell" which makes it about 55 milliVolts. The negative metal was a 10:6:6 alloy of copper, zinc and nickel, similar to German silver, and the positive metal was a 12:5:1 alloy of antimony, zinc and bismuth. The iron bar a-b was heated and the lower ends cooled by immersion in water. A defect of this design was a rapid increase in internal resistance as the two alloys oxidised at their point of contact.

Markus' thermopile won a prize in 1864/5 from the Vienna Society for the Promotion of Science.

From "Electricity in The Service of Man" published in its 3rd edition in 1896; the thermopile section appears to have been written much earlier, and certainly before 1888. It was originally published in Germany and was written by Dr A R Von Urbanitsky.

Left: Antoine César Becquerel's thermopile

This was invented by Antoine César Becquerel. (1788–1878) The junctions were composed of copper sulphide for one metal, and German silver for the other. He was the father of the physicist A E Becquerel, (1820-1891) and grandfather of the physicist Henri Becquerel (1852-1908) who discovered radioactivity. His name is one of the 72 names inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.

According to Watt, Becquerel first observed that copper sulphide could be useful as one half of a thermojunction in 1827.

It appears that D is a trough of cooling water for the cold junctions, supplied at B and exiting at C. There appears to be another trough on the other side of the central burner E. Gas for the burner is supplied via pipe A.

Image from "Electricity and Magnetism", 1891.

Left: The Clamond Thermopile

This pile, developed in association with Mure, used a zinc-antimony alloy for one metal and iron as the other. It was gas-fired, and could liberate 0.7 oz of copper per hour by electrolysis while consuming 6 cubic feet of gas in the same period. The output current was quoted in this outlandish fashion because electroplating was the main application of these devices; possibly practical ammeters did not yet exist.
The diagonal connections that join each ring of couples in series can be seen between the two vertical strips.

The gas pipe can be seen coming in from bottom right. The little coffee-pot thing in the line is actually a gas pressure regulator.

From "Electricity in The Service of Man"

Left: The Clamond Thermopile: plan view.

The solid sectors A were made of the alloy, while the cooling fins F were made of sheet iron to act as cooling fins for the cold junctions.

From "Electricity in The Service of Man", a much longer book than "Electricity in The Service of Chameleons"

Left: The Clamond Thermopile: reality.

Note gas feed with tap running into the centre of the pile.

This example is in the History Museum of the University of Pavia in Lombardy, Italy.

Left: The Clamond Thermopile: section.

Showing the multiple annular burners in the centre of the pile. Gas enters through tube T.

According to the French journal La Nature for 1874, one of these piles was in use at the printing works of the Banque de France, presumably for electroplating.

Picture from La Nature 1874.

Left: The Improved Clamond Thermopile: 1879.

The EMF of this pile was no less than 109 Volts, with an internal resistance of 15.5 Ohms. The maximum power output was therefore 192 Watts, at 54 Volts and 3.5 Amps.

This pile was fired by coke. The hot junctions were at C, while the cold junctions D were cooled by sheet iron as in the original design above. The tortuous path T-O-P taken by the hot gases prevented flames playing on the hot junctions. This mighty beast was 98 inches high and 39 inches in diameter. It was a serious piece of machinery, quite capable of delivering a lethal voltage.

From "Electricity in The Service of Man"
Further details come from Rankin Kennedy. The pile shown here was described by Clamond before the Paris Academy in 1879. It had 3000 elements, and at 20 elements to generate 1 Volt it should have given 150 Volts unloaded. It consumed 22 pounds of coke per hour.
From Volume 4 of "Electrical Installations" by Rankin Kennedy

Left: The Noe Thermopile.

The hot junctions are the pointed things directed inwards to the central burner. The cold junctions are cooled by radiation and convection from the vertical strips on the outside.

The inventor, Fr. Noe, came from Vienna. The output EMF of this pile was about 2 Volts, with an internal resistance of 0.2 Ohm. This was for a pile with 128 couples.

From "Electricity in The Service of Man".

Left: One thermocouple from the Noe Thermopile.

The hot junction is a copper pin in a brass case, surrounded by "an alloy" which is presumably the other half of the junction.

The connecting wires visible here on each side were of "German silver". German silver (better known nowadays as nickel silver) is the generic name for a range of bright silver-grey metal alloys, composed of copper, nickel and zinc; it contains no real silver.
These wires were essential to join the thermocouples together, but reduced its efficiency as they conducted heat away from the hot junctions to the cold ones. The problem is elegantly solved in modern semiconductor versions by using alternate P and N type materials that do not require these connections.

From "Electricity in The Service of Man".
Left: The Noe Thermopile in reality.

This high-performance version is surrounded by little cylindrical fins for cooling the cold junctions, permitting a greater output.

This example is in the History Museum of the University of Pavia in Lombardy, Italy.

Left: Hauck's thermopile.

The EMF of a single couple was quoted as "0.1 of a Daniel cell" which makes it about 110 milliVolts; this seems rather high to me. The current capacity using 30 couples was "capable of making a platinum wire 1.2 inches long red-hot" which is not a very useful sort of spec, since we have no idea how thick the wire was.
The Hauck pile was fired by gas, using something looking very much like a Bunsen burner. The cold junctions were water-cooled by a series of little cylindrical tanks, and there was an obscure little glass device in the middle; possibly to show the rate of gas flow?

These devices appear to have been produced commercially in different sizes, with two or three placed on a common frame. They were used for science education and electroplating. To put a time marker on this, it was 1843 when Moses Poole took out a patent for the use of thermoelectricity instead of batteries for electro-deposition purposes. This was long before practical dynamos and alternators.

In the days when chemical cells needed a lot of attention, something that provided power at the strike of a match must have had its attractions.

From "Electricity in The Service of Man".

Left: Article in Nature: Nov 18,1875

Doctor Stone reads an article on thermopiles.

This gives some interesting practical details on the problems of brittle thermocouple materials and the difficulty of avoiding oxidation when iron was used as one half of the couple, as it was in the Clamond pile. There is also the interesting suggestion that petroleum should be vaporised at the cool junctions, reducing their temperature, and the resulting vapour burnt at the hot junctions. However, should there be a bad contact on the cold side, causing an electrical spark, things might end bad.

Attempts to find out more about Dr Stone have so far failed.

This article comes from the English journal Nature, not to be confused with the French journal of the same name.


Left: Cox thermopile: 1890

A Cox thermopile as illustrated in Rankin Kennedy's book. He says "Cox's pile, which gained some notoriety..." which raises some questions that are probably now unanswerable. Why is was it notorious? Was it unreliable? Was it inefficient (Even by thermopile standards)?

Kennedy goes on:
"It consisted of bars of a mixture of zinc and antimony, two of antimony to one of zinc, and these bars joined by flexible tinned iron, cast into the end of the bars, same as used in Clammond's pile.
This mixture seems to be the best alloy or metal yet discovered, and, unfortunately, it has very bad properties mechanically and physically. First the mixing and casting of the bars is very difficult; both metals are easily oxidised when melted, and do not readily mix thoroughly; the alloy is as brittle as cube sugar, it is difficult to unite with the other metal, it expands on cooling."

That should be enough to put anybody off, but does not tell us what the other half of the thermocouple was. It does seem to indicate that maintaining electrical conductivity was difficult, and the likely conclusion is that the Cox pile was notorious because it was unreliable.

Kennedy then went on to praise the Gulcher pile.

The Cox pile in the diagram follows the usual plan of a hot central core, which appears to be heated by a gas burner. The outer cold junctions were cooled by a water jacket.

The Cox pile was an American product. US Patent 434,428 was garnted to Harry Barringer Cox of New Haven, Connecticut, in August 1890. The thermocouple materials were not disclosed; the patent is about uniformly heating the hot side of the pile.


Left: Gulcher's thermopile: c 1898.

A Gulcher thermopile with fifty couples, giving 1.5 Volts at a current of 3 Amps. The gas comes in through the spigot at lower right, and the two electrical output terminals can be seen to the left of that. I assume the T-shaped things at each end are carrying handles. The function of the two pointy things at the upper ends of the pile is unknown.

Unfortunately there is nothing here that gives a reliable idea of its size.

Note that Gulcher was German, and that "u" should have an umlaut.

According to Rankin Kennedy:
"The Gulcher pile has, by good design and construction, overcome many of the difficulties, employing slabs and sheets of metal bound up in a cast-iron frame; it is shown in Fg. 69 with fifty couples, This size gives an external pressure of 1.5 Volts, with a current of 3 Amperes, the internal resistance being 0.5 (Ohms) equal to the external, and in doing this work consumes 5 cubic feet of gas. This return is very small, 5 cubic feet of gas for 4.5 Watts work done, yet its simplicity and convenience go a long way to compensate for the cost. According to this result, 1000 cubic feet of gas would give about 1 B.O.T. (Board of Trade) unit, which in Leeds would cost 2s 3d per hour for gas. The high internal resistance is a great drawback."

The complete complete confusion between energy and power in this passage does not inspire confidence. 5 cubic feet of gas will give 4.5 Watts for how long?

The Gulcher thermopile seems to have been a popular choice around 1900. Lehigh University (PA) boasted in 1905 that their new Electrometallurgical laboratory had "a Gulcher thermopile and three Scott thermopiles for small-current work." The Scott thermopile, which sounds like an American design, is unknown to Google.

From Transactions of the American Electrochemical Society Volume 6, 1903:
"The cell was connected in series with a galvanometer and a 66-element Gulcher thermopile. The thermopile was lighted and simultaneous readings were taken of the current and the electromotive force. The electrodes used were small pieces of gold foil, and the electrolyte was dilute sulphuric acid of 10 per cent, strength. After reaching a maximum of 3.5 volts, the gas was turned off from the thermopile and it was allowed to cool. Simultaneous readings were again taken of the current and the applied voltage as before. As the thermopile cooled, the current dropped steadily and when the voltage had reached 1.5 exactly the current passing reached zero."

This gives a glimpse of a useful feature of the thermopile; the voltage was extremely steady due to the large thermal inertia. Turn off the heat and the voltage will decline slowly and very steadily.

Left: Gülcher's thermopile: c 1898.

Here is a real example in the History Museum of the University of Pavia in Lombardy, Italy. Though not a good image, I'm afraid, it is clear that it is pretty much identical to the drawing above.


Left: Commercial thermopile: 1898.

A handy thermopile with wall-mounting bracket. It is gas-fired, with the gas going in through the central spigot. The output terminals are bottom left. Manufacturer unknown, but if it really could be supplied by "any respectable electrician" it must have seen some commercial success. Sudre is mentioned as a constructor; it would be interesting to know more about him, as his name has not occurred before.

Cooling looks like it might be any issue; presumably it relied on convection and radiation from the cylindrical outer surface, as there are no signs of water cooling arrangements. I would have thought that would have reduced its effciency markedly. There are no visible fins to improve cooling.

If the biggest model gave 2.5A at 8.5V, that's a healthy output of 21 Watts; much more than the Gulcher thermopile.

Bottone was a regular contributor to discussions in the English Mechanic at the time.

From English Mechanic 9 Sept 1898, p98

Coke-firing is clearly not an attractive option unless you had a big floor-standing thermopile like the Improved Clamond model above. Coal gas was far superior for table-top models. But when did gas supply to buildings start? Here are a few historical nuggets that show that gas could be laid on rather earlier than you might think. But for a year or two, the Duke of Wellington could have written his despatch reporting his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo by gaslight.

By 1819, 288 miles of gas pipes had been laid in London to supply 51,000 burners.

The first commercial town gas supply in the USA began at Baltimore, Maryland in 1816, lighting residences, streets, and businesses.

By 1850, all public lighting in France was by gas.

I have so far no been able to discover when gas was introduced in the German states; can anyone help? Anyway, I think I have shown that a gas supply was in fact ready and waiting for the thermopile.


Left: Yamamoto patent: 1905.

This thermopile was patented in Japan in 1905 by one Kinzo Yamamoto. Few other details are known; much information was destroyed in the Tokyo Earthquake of 1923.

The P-type material is made of bismuth, antimony and zinc in the proportions: Bi:Sb:Zn=12.0:48.0:36.8. In the figure, D is a P-type "Bullet" and E is a Nickel electrical connection. (Probably that should be nickel-silver: see above)F is the pin to collect heat flow from the flame. A is an electrical and thermal metal connection. B is a cooling fin.

This design has an unmistakable resemblance to the Noe thermopile above; in fact it appears to be a very faithful copy. It was presumably intended for powering radios, but this is pure guesswork on my part.

It appears that Great Britain was rather slow in electrification compared with other European countries. Light could be provided by gas, and heating by coal, but electricity was needed to run radios and a gas-fired thermopile was one way to get it. Alternatively, you took your lead-acid filament accumulator into town to get it charged for you, which was somewhat less than convenient.


Left: The Thermattaix: circa 1925.

Not a name that exactly trips off the tongue. The voltmeter on the front registers from 0 to 10 Volts; a suitable voltage range for charging accumulators running 6.3 Volt valve heaters. The black knob below the meter obviously controlled something- presumably the gas supply.
It appears this device was designed to charge lead-acid accumulators rather than power the radio directly. This may have been because output voltage fluctuations due to changing gas pressure would have had little effect on accumulators, but would have been very bad for the filaments of valve heaters, a small over-voltage deceasing their life drastically. Note there are four output terminals, in red-black pairs, with a shorting link between them; it appears that the thermo-electric elements were wired in two separate sections, probably to give a choice of output voltage.

This example is in the Science Museum in London.

The magazine Amateur Wireless, in April 1929 carried an advert for the Thermattaix, apparently claiming that it could work your wireless set by gas, petrol, electricity or steam. Electricity? It goes on to claim that amongst their customers were gas companies, the Italian airforce, architects of note and big game expeditions in Africa and India.


The gas-fired machine below, which seems to have no name, but was sold by the The Cardiff Gas Light & Coke Company, was brought to my attention by John Howell, who says that his father sold a number of these when working in South Wales during the 1930's; that's what triggered this page. I must admit that I had never heard of such a thing in Britain before- they must have been fairly rare. I would have thought that by 1930 the provision of mains electricity would have been well advanced. However, apparently not.

Whether The Cardiff Gas Light & Coke Co made this machine themselves, or bought it in, is currently unknown.

Left: The gas-fired thermo-electric generator: 1930s.

Well, it was certainly the invention of a generation, but not of the generation that advertised this machine, as you will have seen from the thermopiles above.

It is believed it contained thermopiles (ie series arrays of thermocouples) that produced 2 Volts @ 0.5 amps for valve filaments/heaters and 120 Volts @ 10mA for the HT.

Thermocouples do not generate much voltage, but since they are simply junctions between two kinds of wire, connecting many in series is feasible. One of the most useful combinations is Ni/NiCr, ie nickel/nickel-chromium. This has a thermovoltage of about 4 mV/100K and a usable temperature range up to some 1000 K. This is very likely the type of couple used in this generator; it implies that 40 mV is about the most you can get from each thermocouple, so 50 in series would have been needed for the 2 V filament supply and 3000 in series for the 120 V HT. This sounds possible, though probably rather protracted to assemble and maybe heavy on labour costs. It would be interesting to know what the retail price was.

Picture kindly provided by John Howell.

Left: Advertising blurb for the thermo-electric generator. Probably printed on the other side of the page above.

The automatic control feature is intriguing. Given that any radio of the time would have had a Class-A output stage, whose current drain does not depend on volume, there seems no need to compensate for load changes. What might have been more useful (and possibly what the copywriter meant) would have been control to stabilise the 2V filament supply against changes in gas pressure. Excess filament voltage would have seriously reduced the life of the valves.

You may have heard of "steam radio" but this advertisment offers "gas radio".

Picture kindly provided by John Howell.

Left: The gas-fired thermo-electric generator: 1930s.

With no sign of a connection for an outside flue, I can't help wondering how much carbon monoxide these things produced.

Apologies for poor picture quality.


Left: A Russian thermo-electric generator based on a kerosene lamp.

This lamp was introduced in 1959, once again to power radios. Presumably there were parts of Russia that Stalin's electrification program had not reached. According to Popular Mechanics for May 1959, the lamps were also exported to India. The thermoelectric elements comprised a zinc-antimony semiconductor (ZnSb) with constantan as the other element.

I have been informed by Pine Pienaar that he has seen one of these things, and it yielded both 1.5 and 90 Volts, so it could replace a composite dry battery with the same output voltages. Such batteries were once widely used to operate small portable valve radios.

Such radios typically used four 7-pin valves and needed a 90V HT supply at around 12mA and a 1.5V filament supply at 125mA or 250mA depending on the valves used.

This example seems to be missing its metal chimney. (see pictures below)

Left: Cutting about the Russian thermo-electric generator

A I Ioffe, a Russian physicist, wrote a book in 1929 called "Semiconductor Thermoelectric Cooling" that demonstrated that semiconductor thermoelectric materials could be more efficient than metallic thermocouples. The book has been called "The Bible of Thermoelectric Semiconductors". Dr Ioffe's zinc-antimony/constantan elements gave an efficiency of 2 to 4 %, compared to less than 0.1% for metallic thermocouples, and made the lamp a practical proposition. (No doubt "invested" should read "invented")

The first thermoelectric generators produced low voltages only, and a vibrator power supply was required to get HT for valve equipment.

Cutting kindly provided by Ed Maurus, original source unknown.

Left: Russian thermo-electric lamp partly dismantled

Pablo Reyes tells me that there are thirty cooling fins. The terminal plate has 5 terminals, duly numbered 1 to 5. See the diagram below for their function.

Photo kindly provided by Pablo Reyes

Left: Russian thermo-electric lamp at an exhibition in Leipzig in 1956

Leipzig was in Soviet-controlled East Germany, which may account for the lady's anxious expression. Still, at least Stalin had died in 1953.

The reference to a vibrator HT supply was erroneous guesswork on the part of the caption author. All accounts agree that there was a direct 90V HT output, which is quite enough for battery-type valves.

(In this context a 'vibrator' is an electromechanical device, similiar to an electric bell, that chops low-voltage DC into crude AC that can be applied to a step-up transformer. They were widely used in car radios before semiconductors arrived. Vibrators were noisy and unreliable devices and avoided wherever possible)

Here we actually get some working temperatures. Another source says that the thermal elements were heated to 570 degrees by the flame while the fins cooled their other side down to 90 degrees, but this appears to be simply a conversion of the Centigrade values to Fahrenheit. That source also says that the lamp worked best by an open window, so that air currents could cool the fins more effectively. Not so good in a Russian winter...

Pity about the asbestos but its dangers were not appreciated at that time.

The radio is a Soviet Rodina 52 model. (more on that below)

From Wireless World May 1956 p227

Left: American scientists study a Russian thermo-electric lamp in 1960

At 20 pounds that is one heavy lamp, and $56 was a lot of money in 1960.

The lamp actually used semiconductor thermojunctions rather than metallic thermocouples.

From Science & Mechanics June 1960

Left: Wiring diagram for connecting the lamp to radios

Here we learn for the first time that there were actually three output voltages; +90V for the HT, +1.2V for the valve filaments, and -9V, presumably for valve biasing. It looks as if you get a floating 1.2V supply between terminals 3 and 4, with terminal 3 positive. The 90V HT supply is isolated from that and appears between terminals 1 and 2, with terminal 1 positive. The 9V bias supply appears between terminals 2 and 5, with terminal 5 at -9V.

The diagram at top left shows the connections for a radio that requires a separate bias supply (I think that even in 1959 that would have been considered old-fashioned) with the HT and LT 0V terminals strapped together.

From the lamp instruction manual

The diagram at lower left shows the connections for a radio that does not require a separate bias supply. It looks as though the HT supply is being taken from terminals 1 and 5, which gives an HT of 99V. (Although '90V' is written on the radio end) Presumably this would give better operation than 90V, providing of course that the radio was built to cope with it. The diagram at top right appears to be the equivalent circuit of the lamp.

Left: Translation of the lamp diagram

I am very grateful to John Nightingale and and his colleague for this translation of the text on the diagram.

Note that the lamp and its thermo-electric elements is refered to as the "thermal head".

Pavel Panenka tells me that the receivers named here translate as follows: Rodina 52 (= Homeland 52), Iskra (= Spark) and Nov' (the fourth character being "soft sign"), meaning Novelty or Innovation. In the Russian alphabet the character "b" reads as "v".

Left: A Rodina 52 Russian radio

This is the radio being anxiously tuned in by the lady above.

It was a 7-valve superhet, with a heptode oscillator/mixer followed by two IF stages. There were four more valves in the push-pull audio output stage, though the output was only 150 mW. All were single section valves, so seven were required. Their cathodes were all directly-heated and wired in parallel.

Left: Russian drawing of the lamp in use

Either the lamp is swinging around wildly, or something has gone badly wrong with the perspective.

That looks like a Rodina 52 radio again.

Left: Russian TGK-10

A low-voltage only generator, the TGK-10 was produced. This version did not double as a lamp; its somewhat higher power output of 10-12 Watts, was intended for storage battery charging. The battery in turn powered a vibrator supply. It is shown here powering a "Harvest-1" low power, 2-3 MHz AM radio telephone, as used on large collective farms.

Thanks to Robert Lozier for providing this image

These machines are alive and well, being used in remote places where small amounts of electricity are required and the complications of an internal-combustion engine and alternator are not welcome. Modern versions use a thermopile made up of a series array of lead-tin-telluride semiconductor elements, rather than simple thermocouples. These thermojunctions are much more efficient than simple thermocouples, and have been available since the mid-1960s. They are commonly used (working in reverse, of course) to cool the little sofa-side beer refrigerators which are now quite common.

This gives a very good account of semiconductor thermojunctions and how they work: Thermoelectrics by Tellurex (external link)

For one example of modern gas-fired thermoelectric generation, see: Global Thermoelectric. (external link)

Thermoelectric generators can also be heated by radioactive decay, and such devices are used to power interplanetary space probes and the like, where distance from the sun means that solar power is not an option. See: Free Dictionary: RTGs

Even so, I was thinking that thermoelectric generators must be very rare- and then I found one working away in my garden shed. They are everywhere around us!
They are used in central heating boilers to control the pilot-light valve. When the pilot is burning, the thermopile generates about 750 mV- enough to actuate a small solenoid that keeps the pilot valve open. This sadly doesn't mean you can run a central-heating system with no electric power, as the main gas valve is operated by mains power switched by the room thermostat; in any case, the pump wouldn't run.

Left: A modern thermo-electric generator or thermopile made by Honeywell for boiler control.

The voltage output is 750 mV with the "Cold" Junction at 416 degC (780 F) and the Hot Junction at 760 degC. (1400 F) I know that 416 degC is not exactly cold, but this thing is mounted inside the boiler combustion chamber.
Assuming Ni/NiCr thermocouples are used, we can deduce from this that the device contains about 55 thermocouples in series.

So why is a thermopile used for this job? Presumably because it is very simple and reliable; it is hard to see how a thermopile could fail to the danger state- it can hardly generate electricity when it isn't hot.


Left: Biolite thermoelectric camping stove

This ingenious stove burns small sticks of wood or similar fuel. As the fire warms up, a thermoelectric generator starts to drive a small fan, intensifying the combustion. (and presumably also cooling the cold end of the thermojunctions) It can then boil a litre of water in four minutes. The stove is 7.5in tall and 4.75in diameter, and weighs 1lb 10oz.

Enough surplus electricity (about 1-2 Watts) is generated for running LED lights or charging mobile phones. You can see their website here.

Left: Biolites charging mobile phones after Hurricane Sandy: 2012

And also heating up some food at the back there.

The design of the legs seems to have changed.


Left: Lufo lamp with radio: 2013

The Lufo Lamp is a hurricane lamp with an AM/FM radio built into the base. Apparently all you can do with it is listen to the radio (an AM/FM radio can be run on very little power) and charging your phone etc is not an option. Whoever wrote the URL seems to think its some sort of heat-pump, whereas it is the opposite; generating electricity by letting heat flow downhill.


Left: The Curiosity RTG (NASA picture)

Right now the most important RTG in the solar system is the RTG that powers the Curiosity Mars rover. Solar cells do not work well on Mars, as they cannot function in either the Martian night or the Martian winter. Curiosity is therefore kept rolling by an RTG that contains some 5 kg (10 pounds) of plutonium-238. (not the plutonium-235 used in atom bombs) It is designed to power Curiosity for at least 14 years. The elecrical output is 125W at the start of mission; that will slowly fall to about 100W after 14 years. The initial thermal output is 2 kW. so the efficiency is still only 6% for what is presumably one of the most advanced RTGs in existence.

NASA call it the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG. In pictures of Curiosity the RTG can be seen as a hefty black cylinder sticking out of the back like a tail.

It has its very own own Wikipedia page.

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