Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....


Inside any electronic gadget you will see quite a few little circuit elements like the one shown below. These resistors are simply a cylinder of ohmic material with wires attached to the end.

At this stage, most students have a hard time understanding why resistors would be used inside a radio or a computer. We obviously want a lightbulb or an electric stove to have a circuit element that resists the flow of electricity and heats up, but heating is undesirable in radios and computers. Without going too far afield, let's use a mechanical analogy to get a general idea of why a resistor would be used in a radio.

The main parts of a radio receiver are an antenna, a tuner for selecting the frequency, and an amplifier to strengthen the signal sufficiently to drive a speaker. The tuner resonates at the selected frequency, just as in the examples of mechanical resonance discussed in book 3. The behavior of a mechanical resonator depends on three things: its inertia, its stiffness, and the amount of friction or damping. The first two parameters locate the peak of the resonance curve, while the damping determines the width of the resonance. In the radio tuner we have an electrically vibrating system that resonates at a particular frequency. Instead of a physical object moving back and forth, these vibrations consist of electrical currents that flow first in one direction and then in the other. In a mechanical system, damping means taking energy out of the vibration in the form of heat, and exactly the same idea applies to an electrical system: the resistor supplies the damping, and therefore controls the width of the resonance. If we set out to eliminate all resistance in the tuner circuit, by not building in a resistor and by somehow getting rid of all the inherent electrical resistance of the wires, we would have a useless radio. The tuner's resonance would be so narrow that we could never get close enough to the right frequency to bring in the station. The roles of inertia and stiffness are played by other circuit elements we have not discussed (a capacitor and a coil).

Color codes for resistors (left), and an example of their use (top). The symbol used in schematics to represent a resistor.

Last Update: 2009-06-21