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Piston valve: Wikis


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Piston valve in a brass instrument

A piston valve is a device used to control the motion of a fluid along a tube or pipe by means of the linear motion of a piston within a chamber or cylinder.

Examples of piston valves are:


Steam engines

The Swannington incline winding engine of 1833 incorporated a piston valve.

The Swannington incline winding engine on the Leicester and Swannington Railway, manufactured by The Horsely Coal & Iron Company in 1833, shows a very early use of the piston valve.[1] Piston valves had been used a year or two previously in the horizontal engines manufactured by Taylor and Martineau of London, but did not become general for stationary or locomotive engines until the end of the 19th century.[2]

In the 19th century, most steam locomotives used slide valves to control the flow of steam into and out of the cylinders. In the 20th century, slide valves were gradually superseded by piston valves, particularly in engines using superheated steam. There were two reasons for this:

  • With piston valves, the steam passages can be made shorter. This reduces resistance to the flow of steam and improves efficiency
  • It is difficult to lubricate slide valves adequately in the presence of superheated steam

The usual locomotive valve gears, e.g. Stephenson valve gear, Walschaerts valve gear, and Baker valve gear can be used with either slide valves or piston valves. Where poppet valves are used, a different gear, such as Caprotti valve gear is needed.

Brass instruments

First piston valve of a B♭ trumpet

Cylindrical piston valves are used to change the pitch in the playing of many brass instruments.

Brass instruments can be grouped into four categories, according to the primary means used to change the pitch:

There is some overlap between these categories. In addition to its three valves, the trumpet uses a small slide for pitch correction, while the tenorbass and bass trombone both use one or two rotary valves in addition to the slide. The superbone does not fit in to any of the above categories.

Where piston (or rotary) valves are used, three is the normal minimum (as on a trumpet) and four is not uncommon.

When a piston valve is opened ("pressed" and "pushed down"), each valve changes the pitch by diverting the air stream through additional tubing, thus lengthening the instrument and lowering the harmonic series on which the instrument is vibrating. The following list shows how each valve or combination of valves will affect the pitch from the fundamental. This is true of all brass instruments, however some alternative fingerings are necessary to provide accurate pitch using the fourth and subsequent valves in instruments which have them.

  • second valve - one half step
  • first valve - one whole step
  • first and second valves - one and a half steps. Also achievable by third valve alone but the note will usually be flat
  • second and third valves - two whole steps
  • first and third valves - a perfect fourth, or two and a half steps. Will be sharp unless some means of compensation is used.
  • first, second, and third valves - a tritone, or three whole steps. Will be very sharp unless some means of compensation is used.

A fourth valve is sometimes found on more professional instruments, which creates a perfect fourth, or two and a half steps. Instruments such as the tuba, euphonium, and piccolo trumpet have this valve. A common use is to use a fingering of 2-4 in place of 1-2-3, which tends to create pitch problems. Additionally, by using one valve to lower the pitch by a perfect fourth, the valve functions like an F extension on a trombone.

The first piston valve instruments were developed just after the start of the 19th century. The Stölzel valve (invented by Heinrich Stölzel in 1814) was an early variety. In the mid 19th century the Vienna valve was an improved design. However most professional musicians preferred rotary valves for quicker, more reliable action, until better designs of piston valves were mass manufactured in towards the end of the 19th century. Since the early decades of the 19th century, piston valves have been the most common on brass instruments.

Pneumatic cannons

Piston valves (although of somewhat different design, usually being pneumatically operated) are some of the most powerful available for pneumatic cannons (see Spud guns), with the two critical attributes of high flow (anywhere from, depending on size and pressure, tens to hundreds of litres of compressed air in only a few dozen milliseconds), and rapid opening times (typically of the order of 1-2 milliseconds from fully closed to fully open). This fast moving air is used to supply pressure behind a projectile, which is consequently fired from the exhaust barrel. As the name suggests they are used to fire vegetables, such as potatoes; wood, to simulate hurricanes; and t-shirts, among many other things. They are used extensively in the film and special effects industry to simulate explosions in war films.

See also


  1. ^ Clinker, C.R. (1977) The Leicester & Swannington Railway Bristol: Avon Anglia Publications & Services. Reprinted from the Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological Society Volume XXX, 1954.
  2. ^ Information plaque on the Swannington engine, National Railway Museum, York.

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