Vacuum tubes played a key role in the development of electronic technology that drove the expansion and commercialization of radio broadcasting, television, radar, sound reproduction, large telephone networks, analog and digital computers, and industrial process control. For most purposes, the vacuum tube has been replaced by solid-state devices such as transistors and solid-state diodes. Solid-state devices last much longer, are smaller, more efficient, more reliable, and cheaper than equivalent vacuum tube devices. However, tubes are still used in specialized applications: for engineering reasons, as in high-power radio frequency transmitters.
A vacuum tube consists of electrodes in a vacuum in a insulating heat-resistant envelope. Many tubes have glass envelopes, though some types such as power tubes may have ceramic or metal envelopes. The electrodes are attached to leads which pass through the envelope via an airtight seal. On most tubes, the leads are designed to plug into a tube socket for easy replacement. The simplest vacuum tubes resemble incandescent light bulbs in that they have a filament sealed in a glass envelope which has been evacuated of all air. When hot, the filament releases electrons into the vacuum: a process called thermionic emission. The resulting negatively charged cloud of electrons is called a space charge. These electrons will be drawn to a metal plate inside the envelope, if the plate is positively charged relative to the filament. The result is a flow of electrons from filament to plate.