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The little gray box that started a revolution

25 years of DMMs

It wasn't as big as the space shuttle Enterprise.
It wasn't as flashy as Star Wars.

For electrical technicians, that didn't matter. The Fluke 8020A digital multimeter made big news in 1977.

Traveling in hip pockets and tool bags to the most inaccessible job sites, it proved to be accurate, reliable, easy to use and tough as a rock. And it made the technicians who used it look good.

The Fluke 8020A - the world's first successful hand-held DMM - gave field technicians the troubleshooting capabilities once reserved for lab specialists. It changed Fluke's focus from a maker of bench test instruments into the world leader in handheld electrical test tools. In the decades that followed, the 8020 and its successors would earn their keep in the world's most challenging workplaces and build incredible loyalty among some of the world's most demanding technicians.

"It's still my favorite, just because I've had it so long," says Jack Nugent, FlukePlus member and president of Specialty Engineering, Inc. in Vancouver, WA, USA. Traveling across the Northwestern United States to maintain control circuits for small power utilities, Nugent and his team can choose from an arsenal of Fluke DMMs. And his 8020A, purchased in June of 1978, still resides in his personal toolbox.

Imagine still using other 1977 technology, like the Apple II computer, Atari 2600 video game or a first-year VHS video player!

Secret: The Newest and Best Technology
Born into an era of remarkable technological advances (the first fiber optic phone circuits began service in 1977), the Fluke 8020A used the newest and best electronics technology. That was its secret.

Existing components couldn't deliver the required combination of high performance and low cost, so Fluke designers created a custom complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) analog-to-digital converter chip to drive its liquid crystal display. The electronics packaged into that little gray case proved to be highly accurate (within 0.25 percent of reading +/- 1 digit), light on battery use, reliable and durable.

Visiting trade magazines to show off the new product, Chuck Newcombe, now product planner at Fluke, would "accidentally" let it slip from his hand to show off its toughness.

"One editor nearly broke his neck trying to keep it from hitting the floor," Newcombe laughs. "He missed it, but I just picked it up and continued with the demonstration. I knew it would still work, and it did."

If the 8020 impressed the editors (Electronics magazine ran a six-page technical analysis), it made an even bigger splash where it really counts: in the field. After just a day of use, competing meters with an LED display required an overnight recharge; the nine-volt battery in the 8020 lasted through 200 hours of testing. Its LCD display was designed to optimize visibility and response, even at low temperatures. To protect against high-voltage transients, the 8020 used metal-oxide varistor clamps in combination with input resistors designed to fail as an open circuit to protect the meter and its operator. The little gray meter delivered a mix of performance and price (US$169) that made it an instant hit.

Before the 8020A was retired in 1984, more than 250,000 were sold. And, the 8020B, with five additional models based on the same technology, brought the total to 1 million units by the end of the decade. Combine that with over 2 million 70 Series meters (a new design introduced in 1983), and Fluke was in the handheld test tool business big time.

Building a Worldwide Reputation
In 1999, while working as plant electrician at a mill that processed durum wheat flour for pasta, FlukePlus member Fredrick Gantzer II of Minot, ND USA spent a month in Uzwil, Switzerland, learning about the factory's food processing equipment, manufactured by Swiss giant Buhler AG.

"Everybody knows that the Swiss are great engineers and manufacturers," Gantzer says. "One day they took us to their electronics factory. As I was walking around, I noticed that everybody had at least one Fluke meter."

"To me, that really said something," Gantzer continues. "The best craftsmen in the world were using an American-made meter. That really says something about the quality of Fluke instruments."

Millenium Meters
Today's Fluke multimeters are safer and more capable than ever before. For instance, the new Fluke 189 DMM delivers more than 20 features not available in the 8020A. They include:

  • The ability to record and time-stamp events to identify intermittents.
  • Safety rated for 1000 V CAT III, 600 V CAT IV environments.
  • Designed to withstand 8,000-volt peak transients and protect against arc flash.
  • Fused to safely measure five times more in-line current
  • Built-in thermometer eliminates the need to carry a separate tool
  • 'Display hold' freezes display while measuring
  • Min/Max/Average readings capture intermittents, sags and swells
  • Peak capture function helps find glitches and transients without a scope
  • Faster auto ranging and integral holster

Planning the Meters of Tomorrow
Improved Safety and Ruggedness - The concern for among employers, unions and technicians is only going to increase. Today's Fluke tools meet or exceed the toughest relevant safety standards and bear the marks of U.S. and international testing labs to prove it. As standards become more rigorous, so will Fluke DMMs.

Ergonomics to Fit the Environment - A tool that's hard to use soon slips to the bottom of the toolbox. But techs keep their "Flukes" on top, thanks to new features like larger, back-lighted displays and the ToolPak™, a hanging magnetic strap that lets technicians hang their Fluke DMMs practically anywhere.

Simplified User Interface - DMM designers are constantly incorporating new features without adding extra complications. In the new 87V DMM, Fluke reassigned an existing button to include both temperature and an adjustable speed motor drive feature.

Non-contact Measurement - Newcombe says Fluke designers have their eyes on wireless technologies such as Bluetooth, "Wi-Fi" and Zigbee that could transmit readings directly to a computer or data recorder. Another possibility: instruments capable of making readings without touching conductors. Current clamps are a step in that direction, as is the Fluke 1AC voltage detector.

Greater Reliability - Technicians can be confident that reliability will remain a defining Fluke advantage. FlukePlus member U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Ron Cingle depended on his Fluke 85 DMM to keep Hummers and other military vehicles operating during his seven-month deployment eight miles outside Nasiriyah, Iraq. "The black Fluke hard case helped protect it from the damaging daily sand storms," recalls Cingle, now an instructor at the Army proving ground in Aberdeen, MD, USA. "After seven months of use, in temperatures sometimes over 145°F, it still performs without problems. It served me well."

Expanded Capabilities - New Fluke tools do more. It's that simple. In addition to the ToolPak and larger display, the new Fluke 87V DMM adds a thermometer and a push button low-pass filter that can accurately measure adjustable speed motor drives - something other DMMs can't do.

In just over 25 years, the Fluke digital multimeter has made a journey long enough to test even the Space Shuttle (and yes, Fluke meters have flown on the shuttle). The little gray meter has grown into a family of precision tools that are "must haves" for professionals. The DMM has changed Fluke's business, and made life easier and more productive for millions of engineers and technicians worldwide.

And that's a pretty good start.