
Control your Meccano models (or anything else) from your Windows PC! In an astable circuit, the output continually switches between the high and low states without any intervention from the user, producing a 'square' wave. An astable has no stable state  hence the name "astable". This type of circuit could be used to give a mechanism intermittent motion by switching a motor on and off at regular intervals. It can also be used to flash lamps and LEDs, and is useful as a 'clock' pulse for other digital ICs and circuits. An astable circuit can be constructed using a 555 timer IC and a few other components. To work out the values of these components, we first need to understand the terminology used to describe the square wave output of an astable.
Waveform TerminologyFrequencyFigure 1 shows the square wave output of an astable circuit. There is one 'cycle' (one high period and one low period) every 1/10th second, so the wave has a 'period' of 0.1 seconds. The time period is directly related to the 'frequency' of the wave by the equation... ...where F is the frequency of the wave in Hertz (Hz) and T is the time period of the wave in seconds. Therefore, the wave in figure 1 has a frequency of 10Hz... Duty CycleFigure 2 shows another square wave output from an astable circuit. Like the wave in figure 1, it also has a frequency of 10Hz, but this time the high and low periods are unequal. The high period, also known as the 'mark' period, is 0.025 seconds long. The low period, also known as the 'space' period, is 0.075 seconds long. The ratio of these periods is known as the 'marktospace ratio'. In this case it is 1:3, but it is usually expressed as a percentage called the 'duty cycle', which in this case is 25%. This simply means that the output is high for 25% of each cycle and low for 75% of each cycle. The duty cycle of the square wave in figure 1 would be 50%. The 555 Astable CircuitFigure 3 shows the circuit diagram of the 555 astable circuit. Notice that the resistor values R_{1} and R_{2}, and the capacitor value C are unspecified. The values of these components determine the frequency and duty cycle of the astable, and they may be calculated using the equations below... ...where T_{mark} and T_{space} are the mark and space periods in seconds, F is the frequency in Hertz, and R_{1}, R_{2}, and C are the component values in Ohms (Ω) and Farads (F). The third equation is in fact derived from the first two, but we will only consider using the first two equations. Doing the CalculationsHere is a stepbystep guide to calculating the component values  an example is given in curly braces {}.
You should now have the component values required to build the astable circuit in figure 3. However, if any of the resistor values calculated are smaller than 1kΩ or larger than 1MΩ, you should redo the calculations with a different value for capacitor C until you get resistor values within the acceptable range. Note that you cannot get T_{space} and T_{mark} to be exactly equal (i.e. a 50% duty cycle), but you can get them approximately equal. Ensure that R_{2} is at least 10kΩ in step 3, and then omit step 4 and make R_{1} much smaller than R_{2}  for example, the minimum value of 1kΩ. Varying the FrequencyIf you will need to adjust the frequency of the astable circuit in use, you can use a linear variable resistor for R_{1}, as shown in figure 4. Because the resistance of a variable resistor goes down to around 0Ω at one end of its range, a 1kΩ resistor is placed in series with it so that the value of R_{1} will never fall below 1kΩ. If R_{2} is much larger than 1kΩ, this means that at the lowest shaft setting of the variable resistor T_{space} and T_{mark} will be approximately equal. As the shaft is turned, T_{space} will become longer. If your chosen variable resistor has three connections, it is a potentiometer, and you should connect to the centre connection and either of the end connections.
Building the CircuitA stripboard layout for the 555 astable circuit is given in figure 5. It provides a direct output from the 555 (pin 3), but if you want the astable to control another device, such as a motor, you will probably want to leave some extra board space for any extra components required. Some suggestions are given in "Using the 555 output" from part 1 of this series, The 555 Timer. The 220μF capacitor is included to smooth the power supply, and can be omitted if you are using a regulated supply or the circuit functions correctly without it. Construction
Shopping ListHere is a list of the parts required to build the 555 astable circuit on stripboard as shown in figure 5. You will also need the timing resistors and capacitor you have calculated (see text), plus components to drive the device you wish to control.
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