This empty and derelict workshop was part of the Mullard Blackburn chemical plant built in 1959 to produce the large quantities of laboratory-grade chemicals required in the manufacture of vacuum tubes. Mullard were one of the leaders amongst a worldwide empire of tube manufacturing expertise that supplied tubes for audio reproduction equipment, that is radios, phonograms, hi-fi and guitar amplifiers, professional studio gear, mixers, microphone preamps, equalisers and compressors. However audio was just one use for tubes, they were also utilised in all kinds of other electronic equipment including televisions, projectors, lab instrumentation such as oscilloscopes, frequency counters, signal generators, voltmeters and accurate D.C. amplifiers for physiological measurements. The Second World War effort pushed tube technology even further to develop radar, proximity fuses for guided missiles and logic circuits for digital computers such as UNIVAC and ‘Colossus’ (for German message decryption). A diverse range of thermionic devices were developed to fulfill all these applications, including vacuum diodes, triodes, tetrodes, pentodes, gas filled thyratrons and many other specialised and exotic tubes for light sensing and display purposes. Countless tubes were manufactured during the 20th century and the legacy is unimaginably vast.
Today there are only a handful of vacuum tube manufacturers still operating. It’s only the guitar and hi-fi amplifier industry that’s kept a lifeline demand to keep their factories alive. The tube industry passed its zenith long ago and it’s almost certain that we’ll never see the likes of companies like Mullard again. All the tooling and machines were either scrapped decades ago or lie unused and rusting on the site. The only evidence that anything of any significance occurred here are these shells of vast, empty buildings. The production documentation and the enormous pool of expertise, the physicists specialising in thermionics (emission of electrons from substances at high temperatures), chemists who knew which alloys and coatings made the quietest and most stable cathodes and all the specialist engineers and technicians who made it possible to fabricate high-grade vacuum tubes and the even girls with the skill to assemble them are gone. It’s no longer possible to manufacture true intrumentation grade tubes anymore. Part 4 – Tube Enthusiast: Know Your Tube Codes