Our modern technology stands on the shoulders of giants—specifically, giant vacuum tubes.
This brings us to William Brinsmead. He’s long been a familiar local figure, especially among electric-vehicle early adopters. You may have seen his converted electric 1973 Cadillac eHearse rolling around town.
What you haven’t likely seen is Brinsmead’s collection of vacuum tubes and electronics—one of the most important private collections in the region, and possibly in the nation.
The collection mostly lives in his Reno home, but also extends to a few large storage containers. He has one room completely dedicated to large display cases filled with the delicate glass tubes, in addition to antique gramophones, early television sets, World War II-era aircraft radios, Soviet-era electronics and more. The overflow spreads throughout the house.
How does one get started building a collection like this? For Brinsmead, whose father worked for Nevada Bell—a ready source of electronics paraphernalia—it began when he was about 7 years old.
“My parents let me collect a little bit, but they were always throwing out my stuff!” he said. “That was a problem. When they moved into town, I had to grab all my tubes and stuff that were stashed in the garages out at the ranch in south Reno.”
Anyone born after the 1960s likely doesn’t understand the sheer importance of vacuum tubes—and how those glistening bulbs ushered in the age of electronic devices that we take for granted today.
The story goes back to 1880, when Thomas Edison discovered thermionic emissions while experimenting with lightbulbs. He found that electrons left the glowing carbon filament and were attracted to a positively charged metal plate in the airless vacuum bulb. Later named the Edison Effect, thermionic emissions underlie the basic concept of most vacuum tubes.
There are many types of vacuum tubes, but the two most common are diode (invented in 1904 by British engineer John Ambrose Fleming) and triode (invented in 1906 by Lee de Forest) tubes. The diode is a simple electronic component with just two terminals that allow current to flow in one direction. Triodes, on the other hand, have three active electrodes with a grid and a plate. A tetrode has four electrodes, and a pentode has five. These were used in audio amplifiers, computers, radio receivers and transmitters. They started being replaced in the 1960s and ’70s by transistors, which themselves were soon largely replaced by semi-conductors.
Both transistors and semi-conductor chips are smaller, more reliable and more energy-efficient. However, there are still legacy systems that employ vacuum tubes, mostly because replacing them would be too expensive and/or complex. Or they simply work well, like the small magnetron that powers your microwave oven.
If you know a musician or audiophile, you may have heard them wax on lovingly about the superior sound qualities of vacuum tube-based sound systems. Brinsmead has built numerous tube-based amplifiers in his home workshop.
“At the end of World War II, the Heathkits became popular, and then, stereo, hi-fi and all these home audio systems … they all bloomed in the decades after the war, thanks to an abundance of war surplus,” Brinsmead said.
Newer generations who are now getting their news in real time from their phones may not appreciate how vacuum tubes helped get us to today. Vacuum tubes essentially allowed America to hear, and later watch, news and events in their own homes.
Brinsmead and I compared notes about our first televisions, finding that both our fathers originally bought black-and-white Dumont sets back in the 1950s. Bill has several vintage televisions and loves to occasionally fire them up and feed in images from Star Trek episodes on the color sets, or Dr. Strangelove on the black-and-white sets.
“See that one over there. That one, I did at one of the house parties,” Brinsmead said, pointing to a TV. “That one plays Dr. Strangelove, and it looks just beautiful, because the film was made for black-and-white and really pops!”
Brinsmead was stationed in Thailand during his three years of service in U.S. Army.
“One of the (cathode-ray tubes) there, I recovered from a B-52 ECM (electronic countermeasures) unit in Thailand during the Vietnam War,” he said. “And that one with the big silver screen on it, that is an X-ray image converter and was used in bomb scanners way back in the ’70s. They were scanning luggage for explosives. That was in Thailand. They decommissioned one of them, and I stripped it before they junked it—and that tube was in it.”
During this running history/geography lesson, Brinsmead goes from one cabinet to another, pointing out special pieces and offering one great backstory after another.
“Oh God, this is an interesting one here! It’s rather ordinary, except I obtained it from a propaganda station that the CIA was running in Aranyaprathet, Thailand, right next to Cambodia, during the war. I would go there and repair their generators quite often.”
Yeah, he said the CIA. They wanted stuff fixed, and fixed fast, Brinsmead explained, which often meant driving, in his own car, all over Thailand. Luckily, he’s a fluent Thai speaker.
Directing my attention to a display case, Brinsmead offered yet another story illustrating how much of the collection has a fascinating provenance.
“That tube is interesting, because it was part of a CIA 50,000-watt portable station in multiple small CONEX containers. I think there were 10 of them. One was a DJ room. One was a power supply. One was the main transmitter modulator—all that stuff. While I was there, it crapped out. I knew the guy who was repairing it, and I said, ‘What are you going to do with the old tube?’ ‘We throw them out,’ he said. ‘Oh, I’ll take it,’” Brinsmead said, chuckling to himself at the thought.
After the military, Bill worked at the Honeywell semiconductor facility in Colorado Springs, Colo., before returning to Reno and signing on with the University of Nevada physics department in 1983. Part of his job was equipment acquisition for the lab—and that’s when the collection really took off, he said. According to Brinsmead, he made more than 100 forays for the lab, bringing back millions of dollars in laboratory equipment—and the occasional scientific collectible.
“Upon my retirement in 2010, I finally had the time to curate and acquire more diverse tubes for the collection and preservation of history, as well as the building and restoration of classic vacuum tube hi-fi amps,” Brinsmead said.
He guided me over to a small wall-mounted cabinet, opening it and carefully extracting a small porcelain-mounted glass bulb.
“These are some of my oldest tubes here,” he said. “This is a de Forest Audion. I have three of them. They’re all different, but this was from 1904—maybe 1906. Hard to tell.”
He very carefully replaced it and pointed to another tube. “In there, that’s the light bulb. That’s the same envelope made at the same factory. (Lee) de Forest contacted the McCandless lamp works, and they made the first tubes for it.”
Finally, there are the colorful boxes that the tubes came in—hundreds of them, bearing the unique designs of their respective eras. The boxes alone are beautiful and imminently collectible.
Although there aren’t local tube-collecting groups, Brinsmead communes with other tube aficionados through Facebook groups and email forums like the Tube Collectors Association.
Is there any hard-to-find items for which Brinsmead is still on the hunt?
“It’s becoming harder, because I’ve got most everything,” he said. “But if some old fellow croaks, and his wife calls me, as occasionally happens, I’ll get it.”