Tubes and the Cold War

The vacuum tube was king for all audio and communication needs. It was used by everyone who owned a television and the United States military.

Our enemy at the time was the Soviet Union. They were vilified by every television program of the day, even Bullwinkle! The transistor was coming on strong and it seemed that it would eliminate the tube forever, but die hard audio enthusiasts knew better. Recording studios and HiFi buffs balked at the sound of solid state devices, even though they were lighter, cheaper, and easier to build. The cheaper part interested the U.S. military, who wanted an advantage over the Soviets. Solid state electronics were instrumental in the space race too where weight was critical. It was discovered by German scientists (both our and theirs) that the blast of a nuclear weapon would create a phenomenon called the electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. This EMP was found to cause failure in all solid state devices regardless of the shielding techniques used. This fact was never mentioned to the military by TRW; the holder of the largest government government contract for communication devices. You see a tube is a very reliable device, but it is glass and it costs about $13 to make. A solid state chip on the other hand is drop proof and costs about thirteen cents to make, but you can sell it for thirty thousand dollars because of the intellectual property involved in the design. The secret was kept. Back in the U.S.S.R however the secret was out and the Soviets wanted to win the cold war. They used tubes. There were tubes in fighter jets, and in tanks too. In Russia, you were only likely to find air conditioning in these military vehicles due to the extreme heat generated by these tube devices. The needs of the Russian homeowner were not addressed when the summer heat was on, but the jets were cool.

Fast forward to the eighties. Ronald Reagan was president and he was determined to win the cold war. Escalation was the answer. If we just kept on making bombs and tanks, the Soviet Union would have to keep up. They ran out of money before our trillion dollar deficit was called in by the bank. The Berlin wall came down. Aspen Pitman the founder of Groove Tubes investigated purchasing the main tube manufacturing plant owned by Phillips/Sylvania. He discovered that he could make all the tubes the audio industry would need for the next ten years in about ten months. The economy of scale was irrational. The United States government had stockpiled tubes for decades and these were eventually sold to the public and dropped and resold over and over again causing their reliability and life span to diminish as tubes are made from degradable components (they have a shelf life).

So what were the Soviet tube factories going to do? They were no longer needed by the military. The American audio industry came to the rescue. People like Aspen Pitman and Mike Matthew's went to the Soviet Union to tell the Soviet tube manufacturers how it should be done to succeed in a capitalist audiophile world. The renaissance had begun. Tube mania swept the digital recording world and guitar players said "see we told you they sound better!" So you see, we tube lovers owe a debt of gratitude to both Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev for preserving a wonderfully effective musical technology.