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Frequency meters

Updated July 6, 2013

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New for July 2014: Kerry explains how the HP536A Frequency meter works! Also, we now
have a description of a WWII frequency meter here.

Frequency meters, also called "wavemeters", are what your grandparents used to determine the
frequency of an unknown signal source. Sometimes called "gumball machines", (thanks, John!)
now frequency meters just take up space in one of the lab cabinets that no one opens. Engineers
will fight tooth and nail to get the $100,000 spectrum analyzer in their setup. But you can obtain
similar accuracy with a frequency meter, and if you use one in your next setup, people will think
you really know what you are doing. And they'll probably ask "where do you plug it in?"

Here's one we saw on Ebay recently, it probably sold for $10 or less. In this case the frequency
meter is for X-band, and uses WR-90 waveguide. The scale reads out in MHz.

How does a frequency meter work? The cylindrical cavity forms a resonator that produces a
suck-out in the frequency response of the unit. This you would turn the knob until a dip in the
response is observed. The graduations will tell you what frequency you are at.
Waveguide frequency meters use a short circuit resonant cavity, which resonates at half-
wavelength. Most wavemeters are waveguide, however, coaxial types are possible. Waveguide
wavemeters can only measure frequency over their respective frequency band.

Here is a view of the above wavemeter taken apart. You can see the hole in the E-plane that
couples out to the cavity. At the bottom of the cavity is the piston that changes the resonant

Wavemeters are affected by temperature changes, which slightly change the dimensions of the

The HP 536A Frequency Meter

By Kerry from Down Under

The tunable wavemeter with an L/C circuit was one of the earliest instruments for RF frequency
measurements. As usable frequencies increased, the tuneable cavity was discovered. Many firms
made microwave frequency meters with tuneable cavities; as ever, HP led the way in combining
electronic and mechanical ingenuity.
It’s not difficult to see why these meters acquired the nickname of “gumball machine”. The black
ring on the top is turned to rotate the dial and simultaneously move a piston up and down an
internal cavity; both piston and cavity are silver-plated. The piston and its bearings and the cavity
bore are so accurately machined that there is no contact between piston and cavity. The meter
was inserted in the line under test and a detector was also connected; tuning to resonance
produced a power “dip” of 0.6 -1 dB and the frequency was read from the scale. The 536A
measures frequencies in the range of 940 MHz to 4.2 GHz. The spiral scale is, in total, about 15
feet long. A pair of red divider strips runs in a spiral groove as the dial rotates and the frequency
is read between the strips on a cursor line. Here the frequency is close to 2 GHz:
Here the dial has been turned one turn; the divider strips have moved up the spiral groove and the
dial now reads about 2.1525 GHz.

The 536 gave good accuracy/precision for the time; a step beyond measuring the wavelength
with a slotted line! The 536A had a companion; the 537A This was about half the size of the 536
and covered the frequency range from 3.7 GHz to 12.4 GHz so that these two instruments
formed a coaxial measuring system for frequencies between 960 MHz and 12.4 GHz. The 536A
and the 537A cost $500 each in 1966. There was also a set of several meters of similar design but
fitted with waveguide flanges; the HP 532 series. Waveguide sizes from WR187 to WR28 were
fitted; a lucky owner of a complete set of eight of these meters could measure frequencies from
3.95 GHz to 40 GHz. The price of each 532 model in 1966 ranged from $200 to $400 so a
complete set would have cost about $2500.
Directional couplers
Updated May 12, 2013

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Directional couplers are four-port circuits where one port is isolated from the input port.
Directional couplers are passive reciprocal networks, which you can read more about on our
page on basic network theory. All four ports are (ideally) matched, and the circuit is (ideally)
lossless. Directional couplers can be realized in microstrip, stripline, coax and waveguide. They
are used for sampling a signal, sometimes both the incident and reflected waves (this application
is called a reflectometer, which is an important part of a network analyzer). Directional couplers
generally use distributed properties of microwave circuits, the coupling feature is generally a
quarter (or multiple) quarter-wavelengths. Lumped element couplers can be constructed as well.

What do we mean by "directional"? A directional coupler has four ports, where one is regarded
as the input, one is regarded as the "through" port (where most of the incident signal exits), one
is regarded as the "coupled" port (where a fixed fraction of the input signal appears, usually
expressed in dB), and one is regarded as the "isolated" port, which is usually terminated. If the
signal is reversed so that it enter the "though" port, most of it exits the "input" port, but the
coupled port is now the port that was previously regarded as the "isolated port". The coupled port
is a function of which port is the incident port.
Forward-wave versus backward-wave couplers

New for January 2013: we will further describe the simple difference between forward and
backward wave coupling. In the forward-wave coupler, energy that propagates down
transmission line starts a parallel wave down transmission line 2 as shown below. The most
common forward coupler is the multi-hole coupler realized in waveguide. In this case the holes
are spaced a quarter wave apart so that the reverse wave cancels out. Flat coupling across a wide
bandwidth is possible, using a lot of math to specify the sizes and positions of each coupling

In the backward, or reverse coupler, energy that propagates down transmission line starts a
reverse wave down transmission line 2, as shown below. Single-section coupled transmission
lines are always backward-wave couplers (and outputs are in quadrature), the Lange coupler is
one example. Asymmetric multi-section coupled structures provide forward-wave, in-phase
response, while symmetric multi-section couplers provide backward-wave, quadrature response.
Try to remember that for the upcoming quiz...
Don't get hung up on the port nomenclature, there is no "standard" way to number the ports. We
have used a clockwise notation and we will attempt to remain consistent, at least on this page.
Also, there is no perfect coupler, in a forward coupler there will be reverse coupling to some
degree, and vice-versa.

Microwaves101 Rule of Thumb

Most waveguide couplers couple in the forward direction as they rely on multiple coupling holes;
a signal incident on port 1 will couple to port 3 (port 4 is isolated in our clockwise notation).
Microstrip or stripline couplers are backward wave couplers because they rely on coupled lines:
for a signal incident on port 1, port 4 is the coupled port (port 3 is isolated in our clockwise

The coupled port on a microstrip or stripline directional coupler is closest to the input port
because it is a backward wave coupler. On a waveguide broadwall directional coupler, the
coupled port is closest to the output port because it is a forward wave coupler.

Here's a "bonus" rule of thumb:

Microwaves101 Rule of Thumb

Forward couplers are in-phase couplers. Backward couplers couple in quadrature (the coupled
port phase is 90 degrees more negative than the direct port). We attempt to explain why the
phases are in quadrature on our coupled-line coupler page.

The Narda coupler below is made in stripline (you have to cut it apart to know that, but just trust
us), which means it is a backward wave coupler. The input port is on the right, and the port
facing up is the coupled port(the opposite port is terminated with that weird cone-shaped thingy
which voids the warrantee if you remove it. Luckily Narda usually prints an arrow on the coupler
to show how to use it, but the arrow is on the side that is hidden in the photo.

On the waveguide coupler below, the input is on the left, while the coupled port is on the right,
pointing toward your left ear. There is a termination built into the guide opposite the coupled
port, although you can't see it.

Generic directional coupler schematic symbol

Looking at the generic directional coupler symbol below, if port 1 is the incident port, port 2 is
the through port (because it is connected with a straight line). Port 3 is the coupled port, and port
4 is the isolated port. For a signal incident on port 2, port 1 is the through port, port 4 is the
coupled port and port 3 is the isolated port. Just follow the lines! The symbol below is for a
forward coupler. Note: this paragraph was corrected in November 2011 thanks to Jim!
If you ever have any schematic questions, there is an IEEE standard that you can probably find
with a google search:

Graphic Symbols for Electrical and Electronics Diagrams, IEEE Standard 315-1975.

Directional coupler definitions

Let's first look at some definitions using S-parameters. Let port 1 be the input port, port 2 be the
"through" port, and let's assume we are talking about a forward wave coupler (port 3 is the
coupled port and port 4 is the isolated port in clockwise notation, thanks to Tuomo for pointing
out an inconsistency, January 2013!) Ideally, power into port 1 will only appear at ports 2 and
3, with no power at port 4, but in real couplers some power leaks to port 4. For an incident signal
at port 1 of power P1 (and output powers P2, P3 and P4 at ports 2, 3 and 4), then:

Insertion Loss (IL) = 10*log(P1/P2)=-20*log(S21)

Isolation (I) = 10*log(P1/P4)=-20*log(S41)

Coupling (C) = 10*log(P1/P3) = -20*log(S31)

Directivity (D) = 10*log(P3/P4)=20*log(S31/S41)

Note: these equations were corrected on October 5, 2012, thanks to Sushia. It seems when we
corrected the figure back in 2012 we didn't check that the ports had changed. The equations are
now in agreement with Pozar's Microwave Engineering, 2005 edition, page 313. Pick up a copy
from our book page!

Note that these numbers are supposed to be positive in dB. Quite often, microwave engineers
present these quantities as negative numbers, it is not a great faux pas, just look at the magnitude,

Note that directivity requires two, two-port S-parameter measurements, the other quantities
require only one. Directivity is the ratio of isolation to coupling factor. In decibels, isolation is
equal to coupling factor plus directivity.

Please send us any comments on the preceding statements, we are operating under a state of
partial dyslexia and there is a possibility that we slipped up on a minus sign!

Coupled-line couplers

This topic has its own page.

Bethe-hole coupler
Bethe-hole is a waveguide directional coupler, using a single hole, and it works over a narrow
band. The Bethe-hole is a reverse coupler, as opposed to most waveguide couplers that use
multi-hole and are forward couplers.

The origin of the name comes from a paper published by H A Bethe, titled "Theory of
Diffraction by Small Holes", published in the Physical Review, back in 1942. If you google it
you might find it, even though it is probably subject to copyright protection. This is a tough read,
unless you like to ponder equations....

Multi-hole coupler

In waveguide, a two-hole coupler, two waveguides share a broad wall. The holes are 1/4 wave
apart. In the forward case the coupled signals add, in the reverse they subtract (180 apart) and
disappear. Coupling factor is controlled by hole size. The "holes" are often x-shaped, or perhaps
other proprietary shapes. It is possible to provide very flat coupling over an entire waveguide
band if you know what you are doing (think "Chebychev"...)

Bi-directional property

Any directional coupler is bi-directional, that is, it performs equally well when the signal is
incident on port 2 versus port 1, but the coupled and isolated ports flip. All direction couplers are
bi-directional, unless you terminate one of the ports. Consider the coupled-line coupler below.
Port 4 is the coupled port when a signal is incident on port 1, and port 3 is the coupled port when
a signal is incident on port 2.

Dual-directional coupler

Here we have two couplers in series, in opposing directions, with the isolated ports internally
terminated. This component is the basis for the reflectometer. Using internal, well-matched loads
helps remove errors associated with poor terminations that might be present in real systems.
We'll analyze that statement one of these days. Oops, we have violated our clockwise notation
rule below!
Hybrid couplers

A hybrid coupler is a special case, where a 3 dB split is desired between the through path and the
coupled path. There are two types of hybrid couplers, 90 degree couplers (such as Langes or
branchlines) and 180 degree hybrids (such as rat-races and magic tees). We have a separate page
on this topic, click here!


This is the component that allows you to measure S-parameter magnitudes using a network

You can build a reflectometer using a single directional coupler to form a reflectometer and two
power sensors, but it is not recommended (use the dual-directional coupler you cheapskate!) A
reflectometer allows you to compute the magnitude (and perhaps phase) of an unknown
reflection coefficient that is presented to one of the ports. For example, suppose the sample was
placed at port 2 and it was excited by a signal at port 1. The magnitude of the reflection
coefficient (S11 in S-parameters) would be the ratio of power at port 3 to power at port 4, given
that the coupler is a reverse coupler.

Finite directivity can cause errors in reflectometry measurements, particularly is a load is not
well matched. 40 dB directivity will have a very small error, 20 dB may be unacceptable

This topic deserves its very own Microwaves101 page, we'll post that next time we dive into
reflectometry math....
Magic tees
Updated March 17, 2008

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Oh ho ho, it's Magic by Pilot, a Scottish group, 1975

A magic tee is a four-port, 180 degree hybrid splitter, realized in waveguide. Originally
developed in World-War II, and first published by W. A. Tyrell in a 1947 IRE paper, it
has very similar properties to the rat-race coupler, which is usually realized in microstrip
or stripline.

Like all of the coupler and splitter structures, the magic tee can be used as a power
combiner, or a divider. It is ideally lossless, so that all power into one port can be
assumed to exit the remaining ports.

The convention used in Pozar's book "Microwave Engineering" is shown on the following
figure, though not all waveguide vendors adhere to it. Port 1 is the (sum) port, and is
sometimes called the H-plane port, and sometimes called the P-port for "parallel". A
signal incident on port 1 equally splits between ports 2 and 3, and the resulting signals
are in phase. Ports 2 and 3 are sometimes called the co-linear ports (thanks Bill!),
because they are the only two that are in line with each other. Port 4 is the
(difference or delta) port, and is sometimes called the E-plane port, or the S-port for
"series". A signal incident on the difference port splits equally between ports 2 and 3,
but the resulting signals are 180 degrees out of phase (thanks Harald!)
The math behind the magic tee is too much for us to present here for now. Maybe it's
just better to leave it as "magic" and not try to analyze it.

We used HFSS v10 to model a magic tee, using an example right out of the Ansoft
HFSS book. This exercise will help you visualize how the E-field of a signal entering the
sum port remains in the same up-and-down direction and polarity as it splits to ports 2
and 3, while the E-field of a signal entering the delta port wraps around into two
opposing polarities as it splits between ports 2 and 3. The interior dimensions of the
waveguide are 50 mm by 20 mm. This is not a standard waveguide size, the broad wall
is approximately two inches, which puts it close to WR187. You can tell that Ansoft is
run by mathematicians, not microwave engineers, or they would have picked a "real"
waveguide band. Below is the model:
The next picture shows how it was meshed:
The next two pictures show the E-field vectors for signals entering the sum port, then
the delta port. Now you can see how the delta port excites opposing phases in the CO-
linear arms.
Cool stuff! The next plot shows the phase of the transmission coefficients out the CO-
linear ports, when driven by the delta port. Note the 180 degree difference.
Last, here are some of the S-parameters of the fourport network, including the
transmission coefficient between sum and delta ports (red trace), which is better than -
50 dB. The input match S11 (blue trace) could be better, which would require some
tuning. Guess that's why you'd never buy a magic tee from Ansoft! If you go back to
Tyrell's paper, he suggests adding tuning to the and arms. This can be done with
tuning screws, rods, or plates. We're not going to get into this right now.
The magic tee in the photo below is WR-62. If you cut it open you could see how it was
tuned. We like it just fine in one piece.


Updated July 6, 2011

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By terminating one port, a circulator becomes an isolator, which has the property that
energy flows on one direction only. This is an extremely useful device for "isolating"
components in a chain, so that bad VSWRs don't contribute to gain ripple, or lead to
instabilities (unwanted oscillations). An isolator is a non-reciprocal, passive network.

CW and CCW isolators

Here's a WR42 (Ka-band) waveguide isolator we spotted recently on Ebay for forty
bucks. This one is clockwise orientation (at least until you flip it over!) The waveguide is
made in the way that is most sensitive to weld integrity. The load is probably rated at 1
watt or less (it is pretty small). Click for a close-up view!

If you want to learn where the name "Farinon" came from (it appears on the isolator
photo above), visit our "where are they now" page!