Visualizing Transmission Lines

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As you say, a transmission line has both distributed capacitance and distributed inductance, which combine to form its characteristic impedance Z0. Let’s assume we have a step voltage source whose output impedance ZS matches Z0. Prior to t=0, all voltages and currents are zero.

At the moment the step occurs, the voltage from the source divides itself equally across ZS and Z0, so the voltage at that end of the line is VS/2. The first thing that needs to happen is that the first bit of capacitance needs to be charged to that value, which requires a current to flow through the first bit of inductance. But that immediately causes the next bit of capacitance to be charged through the next bit of inductance, and so on. A voltage wave propogates down the line, with current flowing behind it, but not ahead of it.

If the far end of the line is terminated with a load of the same value as Z0, when the voltage wave gets there, the load immediately starts drawing a current that exactly matches the current that’s already flowing in the line. There’s no reason for anything to change, so there’s no reflection in the line.

However, suppose the far end of the line is open. When the voltage wave gets there, there’s no place for the current that’s flowing just behind it to go, so the charge “piles up” in the last bit of capacitance until the voltage gets to the point where it can halt the current in the last bit of inductance. The voltage required to do this happens to be exactly twice the arriving voltage, which creates an inverse voltage across the last bit of inductance that matches the voltage that started the current in it in the first place. However, we now have VS at that end of the line, while most of the line is only charged to VS/2. This causes a voltage wave that propogates in the reverse direction, and as it propogates, the current that’s still flowing ahead of the wave is reduced to zero behind the wave, leaving the line behind it charged to VS. (Another way of thinking about this is that the reflection creates a reverse current that exactly cancels the original forward current.) When this reflected voltage wave reaches the source, the voltage across ZS suddenly drops to zero, and therefore the current drops to zero, too. Again, everything is now in a stable state.

Now, if the far end of the line is shorted (instead of open) when the incident wave gets there, we have a different constraint: The voltage can’t actually rise, and the current just flows into the short. But now we have another unstable situation: That end of the line is at 0V, but the rest of the line is still charged to Vs/2. Therefore, additional current flows into the short, and this current is equal to VS/2 divided by Z0 (which happens to be equal to the original current flowing into the line). A voltage wave (stepping from VS/2 down to 0V) propogates in the reverse direction, and the current behind this wave is double the original current ahead of it. (Again, you can think of this as a negative voltage wave that cancels the original positive wave.) When this wave reaches the source, the source terminal is driven to 0V, the full source voltage is dropped across ZS and the current through ZS equals the current now flowing in the line. All is stable again.

Does any of this help? One advantage of visualizing this in terms of the actual electronics (as opposed to analogies involving ropes, weights or hydraulics, etc., etc.), is that it allows you to more easily reason about other situations, such as lumped capacitances, inductances or mismatched resistive loads attached to the transmission line.

A 50-ohm cable?

Early in my explorations of electricity, I came across a length of coaxial cable with the label “50 ohms” printed along its outer sheath. (Figure below) Now, coaxial cable is a two-conductor cable made of a single conductor surrounded by a braided wire jacket, with a plastic insulating material separating the two. As such, the outer (braided) conductor completely surrounds the inner (single wire) conductor, the two conductors insulated from each other for the entire length of the cable. This type of cabling is often used to conduct weak (low-amplitude) voltage signals, due to its excellent ability to shield such signals from external interference.

I was mystified by the “50 ohms” label on this coaxial cable. How could two conductors, insulated from each other by a relatively thick layer of plastic, have 50 ohms of resistance between them? Measuring resistance between the outer and inner conductors with my ohmmeter, I found it to be infinite (open-circuit), just as I would have expected from two insulated conductors. Measuring each of the two conductors’ resistances from one end of the cable to the other indicated nearly zero ohms of resistance: again, exactly what I would have expected from continuous, unbroken lengths of wire. Nowhere was I able to measure 50 Ω of resistance on this cable, regardless of which points I connected my ohmmeter between.

What I didn’t understand at the time was the cable’s response to short-duration voltage “pulses” and high-frequency AC signals. Continuous direct current (DC) – such as that used by my ohmmeter to check the cable’s resistance – shows the two conductors to be completely insulated from each other, with nearly infinite resistance between the two. However, due to the effects of capacitance and inductance distributed along the length of the cable, the cable’s response to rapidly-changing voltages is such that it acts as a finite impedance, drawing current proportional to an applied voltage. What we would normally dismiss as being just a pair of wires becomes an important circuit element in the presence of transient and high-frequency AC signals, with characteristic properties all its own. When expressing such properties, we refer to the wire pair as a transmission line.

This chapter explores transmission line behavior. Many transmission line effects do not appear in significant measure in AC circuits of powerline frequency (50 or 60 Hz), or in continuous DC circuits, and so we haven’t had to concern ourselves with them in our study of electric circuits thus far. However, in circuits involving high frequencies and/or extremely long cable lengths, the effects are very significant. Practical applications of transmission line effects abound in radio-frequency (“RF”) communication circuitry, including computer networks, and in low-frequency circuits subject to voltage transients (“surges”) such as lightning strikes on power lines.

Circuits and the speed of light

Suppose we had a simple one-battery, one-lamp circuit controlled by a switch. When the switch is closed, the lamp immediately lights. When the switch is opened, the lamp immediately darkens: (Figure below)

Lamp appears to immediately respond to switch.

Actually, an incandescent lamp takes a short time for its filament to warm up and emit light after receiving an electric current of sufficient magnitude to power it, so the effect is not instant. However, what I’d like to focus on is the immediacy of the electric current itself, not the response time of the lamp filament. For all practical purposes, the effect of switch action is instant at the lamp’s location. Although electrons move through wires very slowly, the overall effect of electrons pushing against each other happens at the speed of light (approximately 186,000 miles per second!).

What would happen, though, if the wires carrying power to the lamp were 186,000 miles long? Since we know the effects of electricity do have a finite speed (albeit very fast), a set of very long wires should introduce a time delay into the circuit, delaying the switch’s action on the lamp: (Figure below)

At the speed of light, lamp responds after 1 second.

Assuming no warm-up time for the lamp filament, and no resistance along the 372,000 mile length of both wires, the lamp would light up approximately one second after the switch closure. Although the construction and operation of superconducting wires 372,000 miles in length would pose enormous practical problems, it is theoretically possible, and so this “thought experiment” is valid. When the switch is opened again, the lamp will continue to receive power for one second of time after the switch opens, then it will de-energize.

One way of envisioning this is to imagine the electrons within a conductor as rail cars in a train: linked together with a small amount of “slack” or “play” in the couplings. When one rail car (electron) begins to move, it pushes on the one ahead of it and pulls on the one behind it, but not before the slack is relieved from the couplings. Thus, motion is transferred from car to car (from electron to electron) at a maximum velocity limited by the coupling slack, resulting in a much faster transfer of motion from the left end of the train (circuit) to the right end than the actual speed of the cars (electrons): (Figure below)

Motion is transmitted sucessively from one car to next.

Another analogy, perhaps more fitting for the subject of transmission lines, is that of waves in water. Suppose a flat, wall-shaped object is suddenly moved horizontally along the surface of water, so as to produce a wave ahead of it. The wave will travel as water molecules bump into each other, transferring wave motion along the water’s surface far faster than the water molecules themselves are actually traveling: (Figure below)

Wave motion in water.

Likewise, electron motion “coupling” travels approximately at the speed of light, although the electrons themselves don’t move that quickly. In a very long circuit, this “coupling” speed would become noticeable to a human observer in the form of a short time delay between switch action and lamp action.


  • In an electric circuit, the effects of electron motion travel approximately at the speed of light, although electrons within the conductors do not travel anywhere near that velocity.

Characteristic impedance

Suppose, though, that we had a set of parallel wires of infinite length, with no lamp at the end. What would happen when we close the switch? Being that there is no longer a load at the end of the wires, this circuit is open. Would there be no current at all? (Figure below)

Driving an infinite transmission line.

Despite being able to avoid wire resistance through the use of superconductors in this “thought experiment,” we cannot eliminate capacitance along the wires’ lengths. Any pair of conductors separated by an insulating medium creates capacitance between those conductors: (Figure below)

Equivalent circuit showing stray capacitance between conductors.

Voltage applied between two conductors creates an electric field between those conductors. Energy is stored in this electric field, and this storage of energy results in an opposition to change in voltage. The reaction of a capacitance against changes in voltage is described by the equation i = C(de/dt), which tells us that current will be drawn proportional to the voltage’s rate of change over time. Thus, when the switch is closed, the capacitance between conductors will react against the sudden voltage increase by charging up and drawing current from the source. According to the equation, an instant rise in applied voltage (as produced by perfect switch closure) gives rise to an infinite charging current.

However, the current drawn by a pair of parallel wires will not be infinite, because there exists series impedance along the wires due to inductance. (Figure below) Remember that current through any conductor develops a magnetic field of proportional magnitude. Energy is stored in this magnetic field, (Figure below) and this storage of energy results in an opposition to change in current. Each wire develops a magnetic field as it carries charging current for the capacitance between the wires, and in so doing drops voltage according to the inductance equation e = L(di/dt). This voltage drop limits the voltage rate-of-change across the distributed capacitance, preventing the current from ever reaching an infinite magnitude:

Equivalent circuit showing stray capacitance and inductance.

Voltage charges capacitance, current charges inductance.

Because the electrons in the two wires transfer motion to and from each other at nearly the speed of light, the “wave front” of voltage and current change will propagate down the length of the wires at that same velocity, resulting in the distributed capacitance and inductance progressively charging to full voltage and current, respectively, like this: (Figures below, below, below, below)

Uncharged transmission line.

Begin wave propagation.

Continue wave propagation.

Propagate at speed of light.

The end result of these interactions is a constant current of limited magnitude through the battery source. Since the wires are infinitely long, their distributed capacitance will never fully charge to the source voltage, and their distributed inductance will never allow unlimited charging current. In other words, this pair of wires will draw current from the source so long as the switch is closed, behaving as a constant load. No longer are the wires merely conductors of electrical current and carriers of voltage, but now constitute a circuit component in themselves, with unique characteristics. No longer are the two wires merely a pair of conductors, but rather a transmission line.

As a constant load, the transmission line’s response to applied voltage is resistive rather than reactive, despite being comprised purely of inductance and capacitance (assuming superconducting wires with zero resistance). We can say this because there is no difference from the battery’s perspective between a resistor eternally dissipating energy and an infinite transmission line eternally absorbing energy. The impedance (resistance) of this line in ohms is called the characteristic impedance, and it is fixed by the geometry of the two conductors. For a parallel-wire line with air insulation, the characteristic impedance may be calculated as such:

If the transmission line is coaxial in construction, the characteristic impedance follows a different equation:

In both equations, identical units of measurement must be used in both terms of the fraction. If the insulating material is other than air (or a vacuum), both the characteristic impedance and the propagation velocity will be affected. The ratio of a transmission line’s true propagation velocity and the speed of light in a vacuum is called the velocity factor of that line.

Velocity factor is purely a factor of the insulating material’s relative permittivity (otherwise known as its dielectric constant), defined as the ratio of a material’s electric field permittivity to that of a pure vacuum. The velocity factor of any cable type – coaxial or otherwise – may be calculated quite simply by the following formula:

Characteristic impedance is also known as natural impedance, and it refers to the equivalent resistance of a transmission line if it were infinitely long, owing to distributed capacitance and inductance as the voltage and current “waves” propagate along its length at a propagation velocity equal to some large fraction of light speed.

It can be seen in either of the first two equations that a transmission line’s characteristic impedance (Z0) increases as the conductor spacing increases. If the conductors are moved away from each other, the distributed capacitance will decrease (greater spacing between capacitor “plates”), and the distributed inductance will increase (less cancellation of the two opposing magnetic fields). Less parallel capacitance and more series inductance results in a smaller current drawn by the line for any given amount of applied voltage, which by definition is a greater impedance. Conversely, bringing the two conductors closer together increases the parallel capacitance and decreases the series inductance. Both changes result in a larger current drawn for a given applied voltage, equating to a lesser impedance.

Barring any dissipative effects such as dielectric “leakage” and conductor resistance, the characteristic impedance of a transmission line is equal to the square root of the ratio of the line’s inductance per unit length divided by the line’s capacitance per unit length:


  • A transmission line is a pair of parallel conductors exhibiting certain characteristics due to distributed capacitance and inductance along its length.
  • When a voltage is suddenly applied to one end of a transmission line, both a voltage “wave” and a current “wave” propagate along the line at nearly light speed.
  • If a DC voltage is applied to one end of an infinitely long transmission line, the line will draw current from the DC source as though it were a constant resistance.
  • The characteristic impedance (Z0) of a transmission line is the resistance it would exhibit if it were infinite in length. This is entirely different from leakage resistance of the dielectric separating the two conductors, and the metallic resistance of the wires themselves. Characteristic impedance is purely a function of the capacitance and inductance distributed along the line’s length, and would exist even if the dielectric were perfect (infinite parallel resistance) and the wires superconducting (zero series resistance).
  • Velocity factor is a fractional value relating a transmission line’s propagation speed to the speed of light in a vacuum. Values range between 0.66 and 0.80 for typical two-wire lines and coaxial cables. For any cable type, it is equal to the reciprocal (1/x) of the square root of the relative permittivity of the cable’s insulation.

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