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Potentiometer

This article is about the electrical component. For the


measuring instrument, see Potentiometer (measuring
instrument).
A potentiometer /ptnimtr/, informally a pot, is
a three-terminal resistor with a sliding or rotating contact
that forms an adjustable voltage divider.[1] If only two
terminals are used, one end and the wiper, it acts as a
variable resistor or rheostat.
A potentiometer measuring instrument is essentially a
voltage divider used for measuring electric potential (voltage); the component is an implementation of the same
principle, hence its name.
Potentiometers are commonly used to control electrical
devices such as volume controls on audio equipment. Potentiometers operated by a mechanism can be used as
position transducers, for example, in a joystick. Potentiometers are rarely used to directly control signicant
power (more than a watt), since the power dissipated in
the potentiometer would be comparable to the power in
the controlled load.

Single-turn potentiometer with metal casing removed to expose


wiper contacts and resistive track

moves the wiper from one end to the other, and a housing
containing the element and wiper.

Many inexpensive potentiometers are constructed with a


resistive element formed into an arc of a circle usually a
little less than a full turn and a wiper sliding on this ele1 Nomenclature
ment when rotated, making electrical contact. The resistive element, with a terminal at each end, is at or angled.
There are a number of terms in the electronics industry The wiper is connected to a third terminal, usually between the other two. On panel potentiometers, the wiper
used to describe certain types of potentiometers:
is usually the center terminal of three. For single-turn potentiometers, this wiper typically travels just under one
slide pot or slider pot: a potentiometer that is adrevolution around the contact. The only point of ingress
justed by sliding the wiper left or right (or up and
for contamination is the narrow space between the shaft
down, depending on the installation), usually with a
and the housing it rotates in.
nger or thumb
Another type is the linear slider potentiometer, which has
thumb pot or thumbwheel pot: a small rotating a wiper which slides along a linear element instead of
potentiometer meant to be adjusted infrequently by rotating. Contamination can potentially enter anywhere
means of a small thumbwheel
along the slot the slider moves in, making eective sealing
more dicult and compromising long-term reliability.
trimpot or trimmer pot: a trimmer potentiometer An advantage of the slider potentiometer is that the slider
typically meant to be adjusted once or infrequently position gives a visual indication of its setting. While the
for ne-tuning an electrical signal
setting of a rotary potentiometer can be seen by the position of a marking on the knob, an array of sliders can
give a visual impression of, for example, the eect of a
multi-band equaliser.
2 Potentiometer construction
The resistive element of inexpensive potentiometers is
often made of graphite. Other materials used include
resistance wire, carbon particles in plastic, and a ceramic/metal mixture called cermet. Conductive track potentiometers use conductive polymer resistor pastes that

Potentiometers comprise a resistive element, a sliding


contact (wiper) that moves along the element, making
good electrical contact with one part of it, electrical terminals at each end of the element, a mechanism that
1

POTENTIOMETER CONSTRUCTION

contain hard-wearing resins and polymers, solvents, and A string potentiometer is a multi-turn potentiometer oplubricant, in addition to the carbon that provides the con- erated by an attached reel of wire turning against a spring,
ductive properties.
enabling it to convert linear position to a variable resistance.
User-accessible rotary potentiometers can be tted with
a switch which operates usually at the anti-clockwise extreme of rotation. Before digital electronics became the
norm such a component was used to allow radio and television receivers and other equipment to be switched on
at minimum volume with an audible click, then the volume increased, by turning a knob. Multiple resistance
elements can be ganged together with their sliding contacts on the same shaft, for example, in stereo audio ampliers for volume control. In other applications, such
as domestic light dimmers, the normal usage pattern is
best satised if the potentiometer remains set at its current position, so the switch is operated by a push action,
alternately on and o, by axial presses of the knob.

2.1 Resistanceposition relationship: taper


PCB mount trimmer potentiometers, or trimpots, intended for
infrequent adjustment.

Electronic symbol for pre-set potentiometer

Others are enclosed within the equipment and are intended to be adjusted to calibrate equipment during manufacture or repair, and not otherwise touched. They are
usually physically much smaller than user-accessible potentiometers, and may need to be operated by a screwdriver rather than having a knob. They are usually called
preset potentiometers or trim[ming] pots. Some presets are accessible by a small screwdriver poked through
a hole in the case to allow servicing without dismantling.
Multiturn potentiometers are also operated by rotating a
shaft, but by several turns rather than less than a full turn.
Some multiturn potentiometers have a linear resistive element with a sliding contact moved by a lead screw; others have a helical resistive element and a wiper that turns
through 10, 20, or more complete revolutions, moving
along the helix as it rotates. Multiturn potentiometers,
both user-accessible and preset, allow ner adjustments;
rotation through the same angle changes the setting by
typically a tenth as much as for a simple rotary potentiometer.

Size scaled 10k and 100k pots that combine traditional mountings
and knob shafts with newer and smaller electrical assemblies.
Note the B designating a linear taper.

The relationship between slider position and resistance,


known as the taper or law, is controlled by the manufacturer. In principle any relationship is possible, but for
most purposes linear or logarithmic (aka audio taper)
potentiometers are sucient.

3
A letter code may be used to identify which taper is
used, but the letter code denitions are not standardized.
Newer potentiometers will usually be marked with an 'A'
for logarithmic taper or a 'B' for linear taper. Older potentiometers may be marked with an 'A' for linear taper, a 'C'
for logarithmic taper or an 'F' for anti-logarithmic taper.
The code used also varies between dierent manufacturers. When a percentage is referenced with a non-linear
taper, it relates to the resistance value at the midpoint of
the shaft rotation. A 10% log taper would therefore measure 10% of the total resistance at the midpoint of the
rotation; i.e. 10% log taper on a 10K ohm potentiometer
would yield 1K at the midpoint. The higher the percentage the steeper the log curve[2]
2.1.1

Linear taper potentiometer

A linear taper potentiometer (linear describes the elec- Charles Wheatstone's 1843 rheostat with a metal and a wood
trical characteristic of the device, not the geometry of cylinder
the resistive element) has a resistive element of constant cross-section, resulting in a device where the resistance between the contact (wiper) and one end terminal
is proportional to the distance between them. Linear taper potentiometers are used when the division ratio of the
potentiometer must be proportional to the angle of shaft
rotation (or slider position), for example, controls used
for adjusting the centering of the display on an analog
cathode-ray oscilloscope. Precision potentiometers have
an accurate relationship between resistance and slider position.
Charles Wheatstones 1843 rheostat with a moving whisker

2.1.2

Logarithmic potentiometer

cuit is to use a rheostat. The word rheostat was coined


about 1845 by Sir Charles Wheatstone, from the Greek
word rheos meaning stream, and stat meaning regulating device,[5] which is a two-terminal variable resistor. The term rheostat is becoming obsolete, with the
general term potentiometer replacing it. For low-power
Most (cheaper) log potentiometers are not accurately
applications (less than about 1 watt) a three-terminal pologarithmic, but use two regions of dierent resistance
tentiometer is often used, with one terminal unconnected
(but constant resistivity) to approximate a logarithmic
or connected to the wiper.
law. The two resistive tracks overlap at approximately
50% of the potentiometer rotation; this gives a step- Where the rheostat must be rated for higher power (more
wise logarithmic taper.[4] A logarithmic potentiometer than about 1 watt), it may be built with a resistance wire
can also be simulated (not very accurately) with a lin- wound around a semicircular insulator, with the wiper
ear one and an external resistor. True logarithmic po- sliding from one turn of the wire to the next. Sometimes a rheostat is made from resistance wire wound on a
tentiometers are signicantly more expensive.
heat-resisting cylinder, with the slider made from a numLogarithmic taper potentiometers are often used in conber of metal ngers that grip lightly onto a small pornection with audio ampliers as human perception of aution of the turns of resistance wire. The ngers can be
dio volume is logarithmic.
moved along the coil of resistance wire by a sliding knob
thus changing the tapping point. Wire-wound rheostats
made with ratings up to several thousand watts are used
3 Rheostat
in applications such as DC motor drives, electric welding
controls, or in the controls for generators. The rating of
See also: Liquid rheostat
the rheostat is given with the full resistance value and the
The most common way to vary the resistance in a cir- allowable power dissipation is proportional to the fraction
A logarithmic taper potentiometer has a resistive element
that either 'tapers in from one end to the other, or is made
from a material whose resistivity varies from one end to
the other. This results in a device where output voltage is
a logarithmic function of the slider position.[3]

of the total device resistance in circuit.


Electronic Symbol for rheostat
Electronic Symbol for pre-set rheostat
A high power wirewound potentiometer.

Digital potentiometer

Main article: Digital potentiometer


A digital potentiometer (often called digipot) is an electronic component that mimics the functions of analog potentiometers. Through digital input signals, the resistance
between two terminals can be adjusted, just as in an analog potentiometer. There are two main functional types,
volatile, which lose their set position if power is removed,
and are usually designed to initialise at the minimum position, and non-volatile, which retain their set position
using a storage mechanism similar to Flash memory or
EEPROM.
Usage of a digipot is far more complex than that of a simple mechanical potentiometer, and there are many limitations to observe, nevertheless they are widely used, often
for factory adjustment and calibration of equipment, especially where the limitations of mechanical potentiometers are problematic. A digipot is generally immune to
the eects of moderate long-term mechanical vibration
or environmental contamination, to the same extent as
other semiconductor devices, and can be secured electronically against unauthorised tampering by protecting
the access to its programming inputs by various means.

POTENTIOMETER APPLICATIONS

variations. The linear versions can range from 9mm to


1000mm in length and the rotary versions range from
0 to multiple full turns, with each having a height of
0.5mm. Membrane potentiometers can be used for position sensing.[6]
For touch-screen devices using resistive technology, a
two-dimensional membrane potentiometer provides x
and y coordinates. The top layer is thin glass spaced close
to a neighboring inner layer. The underside of the top
layer has a transparent conductive coating; the surface
of the layer beneath it has a transparent resistive coating. A nger or stylus deforms the glass to contact the
underlying layer. Edges of the resistive layer have conductive contacts. Locating the contact point is done by
applying a voltage to opposite edges, leaving the other
two edges temporarily unconnected. The voltage of the
top layer provides one coordinate. Disconnecting those
two edges, and applying voltage to the other two, formerly
unconnected, provides the other coordinate. Alternating
rapidly between pairs of edges provides frequent position
updates. An analog-to digital converter provides output
data.
Advantages of such sensors are that only ve connections
to the sensor are needed, and the associated electronics is
comparatively simple. Another is that any material that
depresses the top layer over a small area works well. A
disadvantage is that sucient force must be applied to
make contact. Another is that the sensor requires occasional calibration to match touch location to the underlying display. (Capacitive sensors require no calibration or
contact force, only proximity of a nger or other conductive object. However, they are signicantly more complex.)

In equipment which has a microprocessor, FPGA or other


functional logic which can store settings and reload them 6 Potentiometer applications
to the potentiometer every time the equipment is powered up, a multiplying DAC can be used in place of a
digipot, and this can oer higher setting resolution, less Potentiometers are rarely used to directly control signidrift with temperature, and more operational exibility. cant amounts of power (more than a watt or so). Instead
they are used to adjust the level of analog signals (for example volume controls on audio equipment), and as control inputs for electronic circuits. For example, a light
5 Membrane potentiometers
dimmer uses a potentiometer to control the switching of
a TRIAC and so indirectly to control the brightness of
A membrane potentiometer uses a conductive membrane lamps.
that is deformed by a sliding element to contact a resistor
voltage divider. Linearity can range from 0.5% to 5% de- Preset potentiometers are widely used throughout elecpending on the material, design and manufacturing pro- tronics wherever adjustments must be made during mancess. The repeat accuracy is typically between 0.1mm ufacturing or servicing.
and 1.0mm with a theoretically innite resolution. The User-actuated potentiometers are widely used as user
service life of these types of potentiometers is typically controls, and may control a very wide variety of equip1 million to 20 million cycles depending on the materi- ment functions. The widespread use of potentiometers in
als used during manufacturing and the actuation method; consumer electronics declined in the 1990s, with rotary
contact and contactless (magnetic) methods are available. encoders, up/down push-buttons, and other digital conMany dierent material variations are available such as trols now more common. However they remain in many
PET, FR4, and Kapton. Membrane potentiometer man- applications, such as volume controls and as position senufacturers oer linear, rotary, and application-specic sors.

6.4

6.1

Transducers

Audio control

6.4 Transducers
Potentiometers are also very widely used as a part of
displacement transducers because of the simplicity of
construction and because they can give a large output signal.

6.5 Computation

Linear potentiometers (faders)

Low-power potentiometers, both linear and rotary, are


used to control audio equipment, changing loudness, frequency attenuation and other characteristics of audio signals.

In analog computers, high precision potentiometers are


used to scale intermediate results by desired constant factors, or to set initial conditions for a calculation. A motordriven potentiometer may be used as a function generator,
using a non-linear resistance card to supply approximations to trigonometric functions. For example, the shaft
rotation might represent an angle, and the voltage division ratio can be made proportional to the cosine of the
angle.

7 Theory of operation

The 'log pot' is used as the volume control in audio power


ampliers, where it is also called an audio taper pot, beR1
cause the amplitude response of the human ear is approxR1
VS
VS
imately logarithmic. It ensures that on a volume control
R2
marked 0 to 10, for example, a setting of 5 sounds subRL
R2
RL
jectively half as loud as a setting of 10. There is also an
anti-log pot or reverse audio taper which is simply the reverse of a logarithmic potentiometer. It is almost always
used in a ganged conguration with a logarithmic poten- A potentiometer with a resistive load, showing equivalent xed
resistors for clarity.
tiometer, for instance, in an audio balance control.
Potentiometers used in combination with lter networks The potentiometer can be used as a voltage divider to
act as tone controls or equalizers.
obtain a manually adjustable output voltage at the slider
(wiper) from a xed input voltage applied across the two
ends of the potentiometer. This is their most common
use.

6.2

Television

Potentiometers were formerly used to control picture


brightness, contrast, and color response. A potentiometer
was often used to adjust vertical hold, which aected
the synchronization between the receivers internal sweep
circuit (sometimes a multivibrator) and the received picture signal, along with other things such as audio-video
carrier oset, tuning frequency (for push-button sets) and
so on.

The voltage across RL can be calculated by:

VL =

If RL is large compared to the other resistances (like the


input to an operational amplier), the output voltage can
be approximated by the simpler equation:

VL =

6.3

Motion control

R2 RL
Vs .
R1 RL + R2 RL + R1 R2

R2
Vs .
R1 + R2

(dividing throughout by RL and cancelling terms with RL


as denominator)

Potentiometers can be used as position feedback devices


in order to create closed loop control, such as in a As an example, assume
servomechanism. This method of motion control used
VS = 10 V , R1 = 1 k , R2 = 2 k , and
in the DC Motor is the simplest method of measuring the
RL = 100 k .
angle or speed.

11

Since the load resistance is large compared to the other


resistances, the output voltage VL will be approximately:

EXTERNAL LINKS

[7] US patent 131,334, Coiled resistance wire rheostat, issued 1872-9-17


[8] US patent 1,357,773

2k
2
10 V = 10 V 6.667 V.
1k +2k
3
Due to the load resistance, however, it will actually be
slightly lower: 6.623 V.
One of the advantages of the potential divider compared
to a variable resistor in series with the source is that, while
variable resistors have a maximum resistance where some
current will always ow, dividers are able to vary the output voltage from maximum (VS) to ground (zero volts)
as the wiper moves from one end of the potentiometer to
the other. There is, however, always a small amount of
contact resistance.
In addition, the load resistance is often not known and
therefore simply placing a variable resistor in series with
the load could have a negligible eect or an excessive effect, depending on the load.

Early patents
Thomas Edison patented his coiled resistance wire
rheostat. US patent 131,334 issued 1872-9-17[7]
Mary Hallock-Greenewalt invented a type of nonlinear rheostat for use in her visual-music instrument,
the Sarabet[8]

See also
Potentiometric sensor
Trimmer

10

References

[1] The Authoritative Dictionary of IEEE Standards Terms


(IEEE 100) (seventh edition ed.). Piscataway, New Jersey: IEEE Press. 2000. ISBN 0-7381-2601-2.
[2] Elliot, Rod. Beginners Guide to Potentiometers. Elliott
Sound Products. Retrieved 7 June 2012.
[3] Potentiometer taper comparison graph; Elliott Sound
Products.
[4] Potentiometer taper. the Resistor Guide. Retrieved 19
November 2012.
[5] Brian Bowers (ed.), Sir Charles Wheatstone FRS: 18021875, IET, 2001 ISBN 0-85296-103-0 pp.104-105
[6] Membrane Potentiometer White Paper

11 External links
.PDF edition of Carl David Todd (ed), The Potentiometer Handbook,McGraw Hill, New York 1975
ISBN 0-07-006690-6
Beginners Guide to Potentiometers
Rheostat - Interactive Java Tutorial National High
Magnetic Field Laboratory
Pictures of measuring potentiometers
Electrical calibration equipment including various
measurement potentiometers
The Secret Life of Pots - Dissecting and repairing
potentiometers
Making a rheostat
Potentiometer calculations as voltage divider loaded and open circuit (unloaded)

12
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