Inside Frequency Control

4 Hidden Mysteries of Quartz Crystal Oscillators (A Not-So-Boring History)

Posted by Rob Rutkowski on Feb 12, 2019 9:04:00 AM

 Hidden Mysteries Behind Crystal Oscillators (2)

The development of crystal oscillators has literally changed the world. Technically that can (and is) said about many things. But think about it! Without crystal oscillators, we may have never seen precision timing in clocks, wide and clear radio broadcasts, or important communication methods within military and space programs.

Imagine how different our world might be without these now commonplace technologies. 

Have you ever wondered about the history behind these small, but important, electronic devices? How they came to be? Who invented the crystal oscillator? And other hidden mysteries?

In this post you'll get a brand new perspective of oscillators by taking a deeper look at 4 hidden crystal oscillator mysteries that many people don't know. 

4 Hidden Mysteries of Crystal Oscillators

1. The Masterminds Behind it All

It all started with Piezoelectricity (The electric charge that accumulates in certain solid materials (such as crystals, certain ceramics, and biological matter such as bone, DNA and various proteins) in response to applied mechanical stress.)

This phenomena was discovered by brothers Jacques and Pierre Curie in 1880. As you can see... they are definitely brothers with a sense of style way ahead of their time. Way to go, Curie bros!

Curie,_Jacques_und_Pierre_mit_Eltern

Image: howknowledgeworks.com

Using the concept of Piezoelectricity, the first ever crystal oscillator (using a crystal of Rochelle Salt) was developed by Alexander M. Nicholson at Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1917.

The first quartz crystal oscillator was invented over a decade later in 1921 by Walter Guyton Cady. For your viewing pleasure, he is also imaged below. (Side thought: I wonder what he was thinking about at the time of this photo nearly 100 years ago.)

Cady

Image: extremenxt.com

2. One Step Closer to HD Radio

While quartz resonators were used for sonar in World War I, one of the first major uses for quartz crystal oscillators was improving radio broadcasts.

Quartz crystal oscillators were developed for high-stability frequency references during the 1920s and 1930s. Before crystals were used, radio stations controlled their frequency with tuned circuits, which could easily drift off frequency by 3–4 kHz. Broadcast stations were assigned frequencies only 10kHz apart, so it was common to experience some overlap between stations due to frequency drift. 

The frustration this caused was probably similar to how you feel when you experience slow wifi... 

By 1926, quartz crystals were used to control the frequency of many broadcasting stations and were popular with amateur radio operators.

Thanks to a crystal oscillator's ability to maintain strong frequency stabilization, this solved the problem of frequency drift between stations and allowed for a better listening experience.

Related: Looking for the newest in ultra-stable OCXO technology? Discover Bliley's Ultra-Stable Oscillators. 

3. The World's Most Accurate Timekeepers

In 1928, Warren Marrison of Bell Telephone Laboratories developed the first quartz-crystal clock.  Quartz clocks replaced precision pendulum clocks and became the world's most accurate timekeepers. That is... until atomic clocks were developed in the 1950s. Quartz clocks allowed for accuracies up to 1 second in 30 years (30ms/yr)

4. Crystal Shortages (and the Rise of Synthetic Crystals)

Military-Alphabet-of-World-War-2Through World War II, crystals and oscillators were used with all natural quartz crystals. However, WWII triggered a major increase in demand for quartz crystals because of the need for frequency control in military devices such as radios and radar. This high demand sparked postwar research into developing synthetic quartz crystals to keep up with higher demands.

By 1950 a hydrothermal process for growing quartz crystals on a commercial scale was developed at Bell Laboratories. By the 1970s just about all crystals used in electronics were synthetic.

Want to see what today's most innovative frequency control technology is all about? Check out Bliley Technologies extensive product list of some of the best oscillators on the market today including GPS Disciples Oscillators.

Bliley Technologies Atlas 1PPS GPS Disciplined Crystal Oscillator


Bliley Technologies is a worldwide leader in the design and manufacturing of low noise frequency control products. Privately owned and operated since 1930, our dedicated employees, utilizing our 64,000 square foot manufacturing facility located in Erie PA, have been a stable source of quality frequency control products for our customers for over eighty years. Bliley remains one of the very few US based companies to have crystal and oscillator manufacturing within the same facility. Bliley's vertical integration provides an ideal environment for our crystal, oscillator and mechanical engineers to work closely with our production employees to develop and produce some of the most robust designs offered in our industry.

Topics: crystal oscillators