George C. Southworth
who developed waveguides in the early 1930s, in front of mile-long experimental waveguide run at Bell Labs, Holmdel, New Jersey, used in his research
Southworth (at left)
demonstrating waveguide at IRE
meeting in 1938,
showing 1.5 GHz microwaves passing through the 7.5 m flexible metal hose registering on a diode detector.
During the 1890s theorists did the first analyses of electromagnetic waves in ducts. Around 1893 J. J. Thomson derived the electromagnetic modes inside a cylindrical metal cavity. In 1897 Lord Rayleigh did a definitive analysis of waveguides; he solved the boundary-value problem of electromagnetic waves propagating through both conducting tubes and dielectric rods of arbitrary shape. He showed that the waves could travel without attenuation only in specific normal modes with either the electric field (TE modes) or magnetic field (TM modes), or both, perpendicular to the direction of propagation. He also showed each mode had a cutoff frequency below which waves would not propagate. Since the cutoff wavelength for a given tube was of the same order as its width, it was clear that a hollow conducting tube could not carry radio wavelengths much larger than its diameter. In 1902 R. H. Weber observed that electromagnetic waves travel at a slower speed in tubes than in free space, and deduced the reason; that the waves travel in a "zigzag" path as they reflect from the walls.
Prior to the 1920s, practical work on radio waves concentrated on the low frequency end of the radio spectrum, as these frequencies were better for long-range communication. These were far below the frequencies that could propagate in even large waveguides, so there was little experimental work on waveguides during this period, although a few experiments were done. In a June 1, 1894 lecture, "The work of Hertz", before the Royal Society, Oliver Lodge demonstrated the transmission of 3 inch radio waves from a spark gap through a short cylindrical copper duct. In his pioneering 1894-1900 research on microwaves, Jagadish Chandra Bose used short lengths of pipe to conduct the waves, so some sources credit him with inventing the waveguide. However, after this, the concept of radio waves being carried by a tube or duct passed out of engineering knowledge.
During the 1920s the first continuous sources of high frequency radio waves were developed: the Barkhausen-Kurz tube, the first oscillator which could produce power at UHF frequencies; and the split-anode magnetron which by the 1930s had generated radio waves at up to 10 GHz. These made possible the first systematic research on microwaves in the 1930s. It was discovered that transmission lines used to carry lower frequency radio waves, parallel line and coaxial cable, had excessive power losses at microwave frequencies, creating a need for a new transmission method.
The waveguide was developed independently between 1932 and 1936 by George C. Southworth at Bell Telephone Laboratories and Wilmer L. Barrow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who worked without knowledge of one another. Southworth's interest was sparked during his 1920s doctoral work in which he measured the dielectric constant of water with a radio frequency Lecher line in a long tank of water. He found that if he removed the Lecher line, the tank of water still showed resonance peaks, indicating it was acting as a dielectric waveguide. At Bell Labs in 1931 he resumed work in dielectric waveguides. By March 1932 he observed waves in water-filled copper pipes. Rayleigh's previous work had been forgotten, and Sergei A. Schelkunoff, a Bell Labs mathematician, did theoretical analyses of waveguides and rediscovered waveguide modes. In December 1933 it was realized that with a metal sheath the dielectric is superfluous and attention shifted to metal waveguides.
Barrow had become interested in high frequencies in 1930 studying under Arnold Sommerfeld in Germany. At MIT beginning in 1932 he worked on high frequency antennas to generate narrow beams of radio waves to locate aircraft in fog. He invented a horn antenna and hit on the idea of using a hollow pipe as a feedline to feed radio waves to the antenna. By March 1936 he had derived the propagation modes and cutoff frequency in a rectangular waveguide. The source he was using had a large wavelength of 40 cm, so for his first successful waveguide experiments he used a 16-foot section of air duct, 18 inches in diameter.
Barrow and Southworth became aware of each other's work a few weeks before both were scheduled to present papers on waveguides to a combined meeting of the American Physical Society and the Institute of Radio Engineers in May 1936. They amicably worked out credit sharing and patent division arrangements.
The development of centimeter radar during World War 2 and the first high power microwave tubes, the klystron (1938) and cavity magnetron (1940), resulted in the first widespread use of waveguide. Standard waveguide "plumbing" components were manufactured, with flanges on the end which could be bolted together. After the war in the 1950s and 60s waveguides became common in commercial microwave systems, such as airport radar and microwave relay networks which were built to transmit telephone calls and television programs between cities.