Mechanical Meter Movements
September 1960 Popular Electronics
meter movements have been around since the late 1800s. In 1882 Jacques-Arsène
d'Arsonval and Marcel Deprez developed a meter movement with a stationary
permanent magnet and a moving coil of wire which survives today
as the dominant form. Lord Kelvin's galvanometer preceded d'Arsonval's
by a decade or so, but it relied on the Earth's magnetic field and
needed to be properly oriented to work. d'Arsonval's movement incorporated
a permanent magnet instead to improve sensitivity and convenience.
I'm not sure d'Arsonval gets sole billing on the name - why not
the Deprez movement? This article in Popular Electronics from 1960
is as relevant today as it was half a century ago.
September 1960 Popular Electronics
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
By Ken Gilmore
great English scientist, Lord Kelvin, once said, "When you can measure
what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know
something about it." Following Lord Kelvin's line of thought, if
we are to know something about electricity and electronic instruments,
we must have rugged, convenient, accurate instruments able to measure
a wide variety of voltages, currents, and resistances. The "meter"
is such an instrument.
This most basic of all test instruments
has actually not undergone a single change in fundamental theory
or design since 1888. It was in that year - almost 20 years before
the invention of the triode vacuum tube - that Edward Weston developed
the device we now know as the Weston movement.
Figure 1(A) shows a single coil
of wire suspended between the north and south poles of a magnet.
Figure 1(B) is a cross section of this setup; the arrows indicate
the direction of the magnetic lines of force. When current begins
to flow in the wire, a magnetic field forms around it as shown by
the small circles. This field opposes the field of the permanent
magnet so that the coil is forced to rotate as shown. Since the
force generated by one turn is very weak, many turns are used in
Figure 2 shows such a coil with a needle
attached to it; the needle moves along a calibrated scale as the
coil rotates. The distance the needle moves is proportional to the
amount of current flowing. In other words, if 0.5 ma. generates
a magnetic field powerful enough to deflect the needle to half scale,
then 1 ma. will cause full-scale deflection. Figure 3 shows the
actual construction of a Weston movement - the moving coil (A),
a magnet and core (B), and the complete movement (C).
Only one aspect of the Weston movement has changed with succeeding
years. (See Fig. 4). Development of better magnetic steels has allowed
designers to make a more compact instrument by putting the magnet
inside the moving coil; the iron shell around the coil completes
the magnetic path.
Mechanical meter movements
Mechanical meter movement diagram.
Mechanical meter movement magnet.
Mechanical meter movement coil.
Mechanical meter movement diode bridge for AC input.
Typical multimeter with mechanical movement.
Mechanical meter movement range selection schematic.
Schematic for meter movement
Measuring external resistance.
Bear in mind that the Weston movement
is a d.c. instrument. If a.c. is applied, the needle will try to
follow each reversal of the current. But since it cannot move fast
enough, it remains in one place and vibrates. But the Weston movement
can measure a.c. currents with the addition of a simple rectifier.
Figure 5 shows the basic full-wave circuit commonly used.
This ability of a Weston movement to respond to either a.c.
or d.c. current - with the proper circuitry - makes possible one
of the most useful test instruments in electronics: the multimeter.
(See Fig. 6.) By adding a handful of resistors, rectifiers, and
switches to the meter movement, we come up with a versatile instrument
that can measure not only a.c. and d.c. current, but also voltage
Let's suppose we have a meter with a basic 1-ma. movement. This
means that if 1 ma. of current flows through the coil, the needle
will be deflected to its full-scale reading. But say we want to
measure a current of 2 ma. We can do it by using a "shunt." To our
British friends, this word means a railroad siding. In electronics,
it also means a siding, but one for electrons rather than trains.
In Fig. 7, the resistance of shunt RS1 is equal to the
resistance of the meter (Rm). Thus, half the current
(Im) will flow through the meter, the other half (Is)
through the shunt, and the full-scale deflection of the needle represents
Shunts are easily calculated if we know the meter's
internal resistance (Rm). In this case, let's say Rm
= 100 ohms. Thus, RS1 in the example given would also
be 100 ohms. If the shunt were 50 ohms (RS2), twice as
much current would flow through the shunt as through the meter.
The meter would conduct only one-third the total current, and its
full scale deflection would represent 3 ma. If the shunt were approximately
11 ohms (RS3), nine times as much current would flow
through the shunt as through the meter, or, conversely, one tenth
the total would flow through the meter, and the full-scale sensitivity
would be 10 ma.
Modern multimeters have a number of different
shunts which can be switched into the circuit to give different
current ranges. One typical meter on the market, for example, has
scales of 1.5 ma., 15 ma., 150 ma., 500 ma., and 15 amperes. Incidentally,
the shunting circuits work the same way in both a.c. and d.c. circuits;
the only difference is that a rectifier must be in the circuit for
the meter to read a.c.
So far, we have considered only current measurements.
But a meter can be connected to measure voltage as well. Let's take
that same basic 1-ma., 100-ohm meter movement again and make a voltmeter
out of it. By using Ohm's law, we can find the voltage which must
be applied across the meter terminals to make a 1-ma. flow: E =
IR; E = .001 x 100; E = .1 volt.
If more than .1 volt appears
across the terminals, more than 1 ma. will flow through the meter
and damage or destroy it. But suppose we want to measure 100 volts.
Again, we apply Ohm's law to find out what resistance the meter
would need for only 1 ma. to flow if 100 volts were applied: R =
E/I; R = 100/.001; R = 100,000 ohms.
Since the basic movement
is only 100 ohms, we simply add the 99,900 ohms to make up the total
of 100,000 in series with the movement as shown in Fig. 8. With
various resistances switched into the circuit, one meter can measure
a wide range of voltages. One typical commercial meter, for example,
has ranges of 1.5 volts, 5 volts, 150 volts, 500 volts, 1500 volts,
and 5000 volts. Again, both a.c. and d.c. voltage ranges can be
measured by switching in the rectifier for alternating current.
A basic meter
movement can even be made to measure resistance, but this requires
an additional circuit component - a battery. Let's take our 1-ma.,
100-ohm meter movement and connect a 50-volt battery in series with
one of the leads, as shown in Fig. 9. Again, Ohm's law comes into
the picture. We know we have 50 volts in the circuit, and the meter
movement must not conduct more than 1 ma., so we can calculate the
minimum resistance that must be included in the circuit to limit
the current to a 1-ma. value: R=E/I; R=50/.001; R=50,000 ohms.
Since the meter already has an internal resistance of 100 ohms,
we need add only the other 49,900 in series (R1). Now
if we short the two test leads together, 1 ma. of current will flow
and the meter will read full scale. Any additional resistance introduced
into the circuit will cause the meter to read somewhere between
full scale and zero. A relatively low resistance (Rx)
between the test leads, for example, would perhaps make the meter
read nine-tenths full scale; a larger resistance would make it read
half scale; with an infinite resistance, no current at all would
Thus, we see that zero ohms appears on the right end
of the scale, or opposite from the zero of the volt and ampere scales.
Because of the inherent characteristics of the ohmmeter, the needle
becomes more and more inaccurate as it approaches the left side
of the scale. Therefore, technicians usually try to take resistance
readings as near the center of the scale as possible, to obtain
the most accurate readings. They do this by switching to various
ranges, which, in turn, means switching batteries of different voltages
into the circuit. In practice, also, a small variable resistor is
usually included in the ohmmeter circuit to compensate for variations
in battery strength. The knob controlling this resistor is usually
labeled "Ohms Adjust" on the front panel of the multimeter.
Meter movement product applications.
The basic Weston movement can be incorporated into still
other kinds of circuits containing vacuum tubes. These instruments
have certain advantages over the conventional multimeter just described,
and are particularly useful for some types of work. (See Test Instruments:
The Vacuum-Tube Voltmeter; April, May, July, 1959, P.E.)
Except for certain kinds of vacuum-tube voltmeters, all multimeters
have one great shortcoming: they can measure a.c. voltages at relatively
low frequencies only - up to about 20,000 cps. But radio and television
stations and other branches of communications must measure r.f.
voltages and currents up to hundreds of megacycles. This is done
with the help of the thermoelement - two tiny chunks of metal, frequently
constantan and platinum, clamped together. When the metals are heated,
they generate a small voltage across the junction between them.
Thus, a circuit can be designed so that r.f. voltage flowing through
a separate conductor will heat the junction, which then generates
a voltage proportional to the amount of heating. This current is
measured by a Weston movement, calibrated in terms of r.f. current.
Designers, using the Weston movement as the basic indicator,
have come up with an astonishing bag of tricks over the years. With
the addition of a light-sensitive selenium disc, for example, as
shown in Fig. 10, the device becomes a commercial photographic exposure
meter - the brighter the light on the disc, the more current generated.
A small generator, on the other hand, transforms the meter into
a tachometer for measuring rpm. In another application, two meters
in one case can be connected to the electronic receivers in an aircraft
instrument landing system and arranged so that they show the pilot
whether he is on or off course (Fig. 11). Such meter applications
are virtually endless.
Although the basic Weston movement has not changed in principle
or basic design for 72 years, there are many striking new developments
in meters. One of the newest is a printed-circuit meter recently
introduced by the Parker Instrument Division of Interlab, Inc. As
shown Fig. 12 the meter's coil is printed on a thin disc and mounted
parallel to a ring magnet. When current flows through the printed-circuit
coil, a magnetic field is created which reacts with the field of
the magnet, and makes the disc rotate. A soft iron shell (not shown)
encloses the magnet and disc, furnishing a return path for the magnetic
lines of force.
Printed circuit meter movement.
entire printed-circuit meter is only 1/2-inch thick. And since it
weighs only a fraction as much as conventional meters of similar
sensitivity and range, it will undoubtedly find widespread use where
size and weight are important - in airborne equipment, for example.
Another important advantage of the new movement is its ability to
handle overloads that would instantly burn out the relatively delicate
Weston movement. The manufacturer claims that an overload of 1000
to 5000% will not damage these movements.
new development is the meter which triggers a relay. Here, the indicating
needle is fitted with a contact. A matching contact is fastened
to an arm which is adjustable from the front panel. When the current
in the circuit under measurement causes the needle to deflect to
where the adjustable arm has been pre-set, the two contacts come
together and set off a sensitive relay which can then be used to
control some other circuit. By far the most sensitive relays available,
these instruments can be made to operate on as little as one or
two microamperes. Units of this type, by the way, can be used in
any kind of control circuit- battery charging, tube overload protection,
etc. - anywhere fast, accurate control is needed.
such as these only scratch the surface. As the science of electronics
advances into new realms, scientists and engineers are constantly
finding new ways to make the basic meter - oldest of all electronic
test instruments - more and more useful.