Typically the op-amp's very large gain is controlled by negative feedback, which largely determines the magnitude of its output ("closed-loop") voltage gain in amplifier applications, or the transfer function required (in analog computers). Without negative feedback, and perhaps with positive feedback for regeneration, an op-amp essentially acts as a comparator. High input impedance at the input terminals (ideally infinite) and low output impedance at the output terminal(s) (ideally zero) are important typical characteristics.
Op-amps are among the most widely used electronic devices today, being used in a vast array of consumer, industrial, and scientific devices. Many standard IC op-amps cost only a few cents in moderate production volume; however some integrated or hybrid operational amplifiers with special performance specifications may cost over $100 US in small quantities. Op-amps sometimes come in the form of macroscopic components, (see photo) or as integrated circuit cells; patterns that can be reprinted several times on one chip as part of a more complex device.
The op-amp is one type of differential amplifier. Other types of differential amplifier include the fully differential amplifier (similar to the op-amp, but with two outputs), the instrumentation amplifier (usually built from three op-amps), the isolation amplifier (similar to the instrumentation amplifier, but which works fine with common-mode voltages that would destroy an ordinary op-amp), and negative feedback amplifier (usually built from one or more op-amps and a resistive feedback network).
1941: First (vacuum tube) op-amp
An op-amp, defined as a general-purpose, DC-coupled, high gain, inverting feedback amplifier, is first found in US Patent 2,401,779 "Summing Amplifier" filed by Karl D. Swartzel Jr. of Bell labs in 1941. This design used three vacuum tubes to achieve a gain of 90dB and operated on voltage rails of ±350V. It had a single inverting input rather than differential inverting and non-inverting inputs, as are common in today's op-amps. Throughout World War II, Swartzel's design proved its value by being liberally used in the M9 artillery director designed at Bell Labs. This artillery director worked with the SCR584 radar system to achieve extraordinary hit rates (near 90%) that would not have been possible otherwise.
- 1947: First op-amp with an explicit non-inverting input
- 1949: First chopper-stabilized op-amp
In 1953, vacuum tube op-amps became commercially available with the release of the model K2-W from George A. Philbrick Researches, Incorporated. The designation on the devices shown, GAP/R, is a contraction for the complete company name. Two nine-pin 12AX7 vacuum tubes were mounted in an octal package and had a model K2-P chopper add-on available that would effectively "use up" the non-inverting input. This op-amp was based on a descendant of Loebe Julie's 1947 design and, along with its successors, would start the widespread use of op-amps in industry.
1961: First discrete IC op-amps
- 1962: First op-amps in potted modules
- 1963: First monolithic IC op-amp
1968: Release of the μA741 - would be seen as a nearly ubiquitous chip
1966: First varactor bridge op-amps
1970: First high-speed, low-input current FET design
1972: Single sided supply op-amps being produced
The LM324 (released in 1972) was one such op-amp that came in a quad package (four separate op-amps in one package) and became an industry standard. In addition to packaging multiple op-amps in a single package, the 1970s also saw the birth of op-amps in hybrid packages. These op-amps were generally improved versions of existing monolithic op-amps. As the properties of monolithic op-amps improved, the more complex hybrid ICs were quickly relegated to systems that are required to have extremely long service lives or other specialty systems.
Recently supply voltages in analog circuits have decreased (as they have in digital logic) and low-voltage opamps have been introduced reflecting this. Supplies of ±5V and increasingly 5V are common. To maximize the signal range modern op-amps commonly have rail-to-rail inputs (the input signals can range from the lowest supply voltage to the highest) and sometimes rail-to-rail outputs.
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