Oscilloscopes are used to observe the change of an electrical signal over time, such that voltage and time describe a shape which is continuously graphed against a calibrated scale. The observed waveform can be analyzed for such properties as amplitude, frequency, rise time, time interval, distortion and others. Modern digital instruments may calculate and display these properties directly. Originally, calculation of these values required manually measuring the waveform against the scales built into the screen of the instrument.
The oscilloscope can be adjusted so that repetitive signals can be observed as a continuous shape on the screen. A storage oscilloscope allows single events to be captured by the instrument and displayed for a relatively long time, allowing observation of events too fast to be directly perceptible.
Oscilloscopes are used in the sciences, medicine, engineering, automotive and the telecommunications industry. General-purpose instruments are used for maintenance of electronic equipment and laboratory work. Special-purpose oscilloscopes may be used for such purposes as analyzing an automotive ignition system or to display the waveform of the heartbeat as an electrocardiogram.
Early oscilloscopes used cathode ray tubes (CRTs) as their display element (hence they were commonly referred to as CROs) and linear amplifiers for signal processing. Storage oscilloscopes used special storage CRTs to maintain a steady display of a single brief signal. CROs were later largely superseded by digital storage oscilloscopes (DSOs) with thin panel displays, fast analog-to-digital converters and digital signal processors. DSOs without integrated displays (sometimes known as digitisers) are available at lower cost and use a general-purpose digital computer to process and display waveforms.
The Braun tube was known in 1897, and in 1899 Jonathan Zenneck equipped it with beam-forming plates and a magnetic field for sweeping the trace. Early cathode ray tubes had been applied experimentally to laboratory measurements as early as the 1920s, but suffered from poor stability of the vacuum and the cathode emitters. V. K. Zworykin described a permanently sealed, high-vacuum cathode ray tube with a thermionic emitter in 1931. This stable and reproducible component allowed General Radio to manufacture an oscilloscope that was usable outside a laboratory setting. After World War II surplus electronic parts became the basis of revival of Heathkit Corporation, and a $50 oscilloscope kit made from such parts was a first market success.
The basic oscilloscope, as shown in the illustration, is typically divided into four sections: the display, vertical controls, horizontal controls and trigger controls. The display is usually a CRT or LCD panel which is laid out with both horizontal and vertical reference lines referred to as the graticule. In addition to the screen, most display sections are equipped with three basic controls: a focus knob, an intensity knob and a beam finder button.
The vertical section controls the amplitude of the displayed signal. This section carries a Volts-per-Division (Volts/Div) selector knob, an AC/DC/Ground selector switch and the vertical (primary) input for the instrument. Additionally, this section is typically equipped with the vertical beam position knob.
The horizontal section controls the time base or “sweep” of the instrument. The primary control is the Seconds-per-Division (Sec/Div) selector switch. Also included is a horizontal input for plotting dual X-Y axis signals. The horizontal beam position knob is generally located in this section.
The trigger section controls the start event of the sweep. The trigger can be set to automatically restart after each sweep or it can be configured to respond to an internal or external event. The principal controls of this section will be the source and coupling selector switches. An external trigger input (EXT Input) and level adjustment will also be included.
In addition to the basic instrument, most oscilloscopes are supplied with a probe as shown. The probe will connect to any input on the instrument and typically has a resistor of ten times the oscilloscope’s input impedance. This results in a .1 (‑10X) attenuation factor, but helps to isolate the capacitive load presented by the probe cable from the signal being measured. Some probes have a switch allowing the operator to bypass the resistor when appropriate.
Most modern oscilloscopes are lightweight, portable instruments that are compact enough to be easily carried by a single person. In addition to the portable units, the market offers a number of miniature battery-powered instruments for field service applications. Laboratory grade oscilloscopes, especially older units which use vacuum tubes, are generally bench-top devices or may be mounted into dedicated carts. Special-purpose oscilloscopes may be rack-mounted or permanently mounted into a custom instrument housing.
The signal to be measured is fed to one of the input connectors, which is usually a coaxial connector such as a BNC or UHF type. Binding posts or banana plugs may be used for lower frequencies. If the signal source has its own coaxial connector, then a simple coaxial cable is used; otherwise, a specialized cable called a “scope probe”, supplied with the oscilloscope, is used. In general, for routine use, an open wire test lead for connecting to the point being observed is not satisfactory, and a probe is generally necessary. General-purpose oscilloscopes usually present an input impedance of 1 megohm in parallel with a small but known capacitance such as 20 picofarads. This allows the use of standard oscilloscope probes. Scopes for use with very high frequencies may have 50‑ohm inputs, which must be either connected directly to a 50‑ohm signal source or used with Z0 or active probes.
Less-frequently-used inputs include one (or two) for triggering the sweep, horizontal deflection for X‑Y mode displays, and trace brightening/darkening, sometimes called z’‑axis inputs.
Open wire test leads (flying leads) are likely to pick up interference, so they are not suitable for low level signals. Furthermore, the leads have a high inductance, so they are not suitable for high frequencies. Using a shielded cable (i.e., coaxial cable) is better for low level signals. Coaxial cable also has lower inductance, but it has higher capacitance: a typical 50 ohm cable has about 90 pF per meter. Consequently, a one-meter direct (1X) coaxial probe will load a circuit with a capacitance of about 110 pF and a resistance of 1 megohm.
To minimize loading, attenuator probes (e.g., 10X probes) are used. A typical probe uses a 9 megohm series resistor shunted by a low-value capacitor to make an RC compensated divider with the cable capacitance and scope input. The RC time constants are adjusted to match. For example, the 9 megohm series resistor is shunted by a 12.2 pF capacitor for a time constant of 110 microseconds. The cable capacitance of 90 pF in parallel with the scope input of 20 pF and 1 megohm (total capacitance 110 pF) also gives a time constant of 110 microseconds. In practice, there will be an adjustment so the operator can precisely match the low frequency time constant (called compensating the probe). Matching the time constants makes the attenuation independent of frequency. At low frequencies (where the resistance of R is much less than the reactance of C), the circuit looks like a resistive divider; at high frequencies (resistance much greater than reactance), the circuit looks like a capacitive divider.
The result is a frequency compensated probe for modest frequencies that presents a load of about 10 megohms shunted by 12 pF. Although such a probe is an improvement, it does not work when the time scale shrinks to several cable transit times (transit time is typically 5 ns). In that time frame, the cable looks like its characteristic impedance, and there will be reflections from the transmission line mismatch at the scope input and the probe that causes ringing. The modern scope probe uses lossy low capacitance transmission lines and sophisticated frequency shaping networks to make the 10X probe perform well at several hundred megahertz. Consequently, there are other adjustments for completing the compensation.
Probes with 10:1 attenuation are by far the most common; for large signals (and slightly-less capacitive loading), 100:1 probes are not rare. There are also probes that contain switches to select 10:1 or direct (1:1) ratios, but one must be aware that the 1:1 setting has significant capacitance (tens of pF) at the probe tip, because the whole cable’s capacitance is now directly connected.
Most oscilloscopes allow for probe attenuation factors, displaying the effective sensitivity at the probe tip. Historically, some auto-sensing circuitry used indicator lamps behind translucent windows in the panel to illuminate different parts of the sensitivity scale. To do so, the probe connectors (modified BNCs) had an extra contact to define the probe’s attenuation. (A certain value of resistor, connected to ground, “encodes” the attenuation.) Because probes wear out, and because the auto-sensing circuitry is not compatible between different makes of oscilloscope, auto-sensing probe scaling is not foolproof. Likewise, manually setting the probe attenuation is prone to user error and it is a common mistake to have the probe scaling set incorrectly; resultant voltage readings can then be wrong by a factor of 10.
There are special high voltage probes which also form compensated attenuators with the oscilloscope input; the probe body is physically large, and some require partly filling a canister surrounding the series resistor with volatile liquid fluorocarbon to displace air. At the oscilloscope end is a box with several waveform-trimming adjustments. For safety, a barrier disc keeps one’s fingers distant from the point being examined. Maximum voltage is in the low tens of kV. (Observing a high voltage ramp can create a staircase waveform with steps at different points every repetition, until the probe tip is in contact. Until then, a tiny arc charges the probe tip, and its capacitance holds the voltage (open circuit). As the voltage continues to climb, another tiny arc charges the tip further.)
There are also current probes, with cores that surround the conductor carrying current to be examined. One type has a hole for the conductor, and requires that the wire be passed through the hole; they are for semi-permanent or permanent mounting. However, other types, for testing, have a two-part core that permit them to be placed around a wire. Inside the probe, a coil wound around the core provides a current into an appropriate load, and the voltage across that load is proportional to current. However, this type of probe can sense AC, only.
A more-sophisticated probe includes a magnetic flux sensor (Hall effect sensor) in the magnetic circuit. The probe connects to an amplifier, which feeds (low frequency) current into the coil to cancel the sensed field; the magnitude of that current provides the low-frequency part of the current waveform, right down to DC. The coil still picks up high frequencies. There is a combining network akin to a loudspeaker crossover network.
One of the most frequent uses of scopes is troubleshooting malfunctioning electronic equipment. One of the advantages of a scope is that it can graphically show signals: where a voltmeter may show a totally unexpected voltage, a scope may reveal that the circuit is oscillating. In other cases the precise shape or timing of a pulse is important.
In a piece of electronic equipment, for example, the connections between stages (e.g. electronic mixers, electronic oscillators, amplifiers) may be ‘probed’ for the expected signal, using the scope as a simple signal tracer. If the expected signal is absent or incorrect, some preceding stage of the electronics is not operating correctly. Since most failures occur because of a single faulty component, each measurement can prove that half of the stages of a complex piece of equipment either work, or probably did not cause the fault.
Once the faulty stage is found, further probing can usually tell a skilled technician exactly which component has failed. Once the component is replaced, the unit can be restored to service, or at least the next fault can be isolated. This sort of troubleshooting is typical of radio and TV receivers, as well as audio amplifiers, but can apply to quite-different devices such as electronic motor drives.
Another use is to check newly designed circuitry. Very often a newly designed circuit will misbehave because of design errors, bad voltage levels, electrical noise etc. Digital electronics usually operate from a clock, so a dual-trace scope which shows both the clock signal and a test signal dependent upon the clock is useful. Storage scopes are helpful for “capturing” rare electronic events that cause defective operation.