The 555 timer. A chip so versatile that it has been used in everything from toys to spacecraft. A chip that can act as an oscillator, a schmitt trigger, PWM driver, a siren/alarm, a light or dark detector, and much much more. It is the most popular IC of all time having been around since 1971 and now selling over 1 billion annually.

This instructable will show you how to build your own 555 timer using only transistors and resistors, no ICs!

Why build this?
Good question.  There are a few different reasons:
1. To Learn:
Learning may be a scary thought to some people, but this project has taught me a lot about comparators and analog circuits as well as a lot of the basics of the 555 timer. The 555 timer combines both digital and analog circuitry  and while digital circuitry is taking over, analog is still important.
2. To Understand:
The 555 timer is a very versatile and useful chip. That's why it is the number 1 most produced chip. It is used very often so it is important to understand how the thing works. Now, you can read about it or even see a simulation, but nothing it quite as good as actually making it yourself.
3. It's Fun:
If you like working with electronics, especially breadboarded electronics, this should be a fun little project. You will break the black plastic barrier that stands between you and your integrated circuits and see the circuit in all its glory (well almost, making your own transistor could be difficult)!

Now that I've hopefully convinced you somewhere within that intro, lets get started!

Step 1: 555 Internals

So what the heck is going on inside the 555 timer? Well here are a couple of schematics from the National Semiconductor datasheet to help explain it.

In the first picture we can see that there are two comparators, one on the trigger pin and one on the threshold pin. We can also see that they are connected to a voltage divider. One input of the Threshold comparator is at 2/3 Vcc and one input of the Trigger comparator is at 1/3 Vcc. The outputs of the comparators lead to a flip flop. Although it doesn't say on the image, the flip flop happens to be a SR flip flop. From the flip flop there is the output stage which leads to the output pin and the transistor that controls the discharge.These are the basic parts of the 555 timer.

This is the basic theory of operation:
When the trigger voltage goes below 1/3 Vcc (its reference voltage) the comparator Sets the flip flop, which pulls the output high and turns off the discharge. When the threshold swings higher than 2/3 Vcc (its reference voltage) the comparator Resets the flip flop, which pulls the output low and turns the discharge on. This basic operation allows the 555 timer to operate in various ways with various configurations.

I don't want to get into all of the ins and outs of how the 555 timer works, so if you know, great! If you don't know here is a good tutorial with lots of theory and operation information. It is my personal favorite.

If we look at the schematic diagram in the datasheet (second image), we can see what is actually happening inside the chip. The comparators are differential amplifiers, or long tailed pairs with a few added components to increase gain and sensitivity. The differential amplifier is the basis of the comparator, it greatly amplifies the difference in voltage to the point where millivolt differences result in rail to rail swings (voltage swings between 0v and Vcc). What's interesting here is that the threshold comparator uses NPN transistors whereas the trigger comparator uses PNP transistors. I don't know if that has an effect on the operation, but I just kept them like that in my circuit. The threshold comparator also has several extra transistors not present in the trigger comparator, along with a slightly different configuration. They perform the same function though, so I just replicated the trigger comparator but using NPNs instead.

The flip flop circuit is rather interesting. There is a lot going on for what is just a SR flip flop with a second force reset. That can be made with 3 transistors so I discarded that circuit and made my own.

The output driver is fairly simple. It is composed of two transistors, with the signal to one inverted so that when one is on, the other is off. This allows the output to operate in push-pull mode. This means that the output can source current, the output is shorted to Vcc, when it is high and sink current, the output is shorted to ground, when it is low. 

About This Instructable


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Bio: I like to make things that move, sense, calculate, compute, blink, and make noise. I like making things that create high voltages, electrical arcs, and ... More »
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