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A magnetron is a high-powered vacuum tube that generates coherent microwaves.


Construction and operation

A magnetron consists of a hot filament (cathode) kept at or pulsed to a high negative potential by a high voltage direct current power supply. The cathode is built into the center of an evacuated, lobed, circular chamber. A perpendicular magnetic field 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 rather than moving directly to this anode. Spaced about the rim of the chamber are cylindrical cavities. The cavities are open along their length and so 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. A portion of this 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.

The size of the cavities determine the resonant frequency and so the frequency of the emitted RF energy microwaves. The frequency is thus not precisely controllable, which is not a problem in many applications such as heating (where it does not matter) and radar (where the receiver can be synchronised with the nonprecision output). (Where precise frequencies are required, other devices such as the klystron are used.) The voltage applied and the characteristics of the cathode determine the power of the device.



In radar devices the waveguide is connected to an antenna, which may be a slotted waveguide or a conical feedhorn pointing into a parabolic reflector. The magnetron is operated with very short high intensity pulses of applied voltage, resulting in a short pulse of microwave energy being emitted. A small portion of this energy is reflected back to the antenna and the waveguide where it is directed to a sensitive receiver. With further signal processing the signal is ultimately displayed as a radar map on a cathode ray tube.


In microwave ovens the waveguide leads to a radio frequency transparent port into the cooking chamber. It is important that there be food in the oven when it is operated so that these waves are absorbed, rather than reflecting back into the waveguide where the intensity of standing waves can cause arcing. The arcing, if allowed to occur for long periods will destroy the magnetron. If a very small object is being microwaved for whatever reason, it is probably best to add a glass of water as a sink for microwaves.


Simple two-pole magnetrons were developed in the 1920s but gave relatively low power outputs. The cavity version proved to be far more useful.

There was an urgent need during radar development in World War II for a high-power microwave generator that worked in shorter wavelengths - around 10 cm rather than 150 cm - available from generators of the time. In 1940, at Birmingham University in the UK, Professor John Randall and Doctor Harry Boot produced a working prototype of the cavity magnetron, and soon managed to increase its power output 100-fold.

An early version built by G.E.C. and given to the U.S. government in August 1940 was called "the most valuable cargo ever brought to our shores". Curiously, in order not to draw attention to the value of the package, it was not despatched under guard, but sent by regular parcel post. 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. Indeed, during the Battle of Britain, radar (then called Radio Direction Finding or RDF) was crucial to the outcome of the battle, though these early radars actually predated the cavity magnetron and gave only crude displays. The Germans were convinced that to achieve any defence of the skies, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) would have to fly standing patrols which would be expensive on both men and machines. Instead the RAF were able to remain on standby on the ground, and the Germans couldn't initially figure out why the RAF fighters were waiting behind the first cloud as they flew over Britain's shores.

Since then, many millions of cavity magnetrons have been manufactured; some for radar, but the vast majority for another application that was completely unanticipated at the time - the microwave oven.

Health hazards

Among more speculative hazards, at least one in particular is well known and documented. As the cornea 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. Direct exposure of the eye to sunlight can also increase this incidence, which is why hats with brims should be worn when outdoors. No such protection against microwave radiation is available. A microwave oven with a warped door or poor microwave sealing can be hazardous. Microwave ovens also produce low frequency electromagnetic radiation from the transformer used to generate high voltage for the magnetron and this may possibly also be harmful, so one should not closely approach the device when it is operating.

See also

  • Cyclotron - An atomic accelerator that also directs particles in a spiral with a transverse magnetic field.
  • Klystron - A device for amplifying or generating microwaves with greater precision and control than is available from the magnetron.
  • Laser - A device for generating coherent light, an evolution of the maser
  • Maser - A device for generating microwaves that produces a very low noise and stable signal, a predecessor of the laser.

External link

  • Magnetron collection in the Virtual Valve Museum

Last updated: 02-08-2005 15:05:26
Last updated: 02-26-2005 04:59:47