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Simple Definitions

The most important electronics terms, demystified in one place.


Our Take

Rheostats, however, are the same thing as pots or trimmers, physically, but they’re called rheostats when they’re acting as variable resistors.

Book Definition

A two-terminal variable resistor used to vary the amount of current in a circuit.

Grob’s Basic Electronics, 11th Edition by Mitchel E. Schultz


The most common way to vary the resistance in a circuit is to use a rheostat. The word rheostat was coined about 1845 by Sir Charles Wheatstone, from the Greek ῥέος rheos meaning "stream", and -στάτης -states (from ἱστάναι histanai, " to set, to cause to stand") meaning "setter, regulating device",[6][7][8] which is a two-terminal variable resistor. The term "rheostat" is becoming obsolete,[9] with the general term "potentiometer" replacing it. For low-power applications (less than about 1 watt) a three-terminal potentiometer is often used, with one terminal unconnected or connected to the wiper.

Where the rheostat must be rated for higher power (more than about 1 watt), it may be built with a resistance wire wound around a semicircular insulator, with the wiper sliding from one turn of the wire to the next. Sometimes a rheostat is made from resistance wire wound on a heat-resisting cylinder, with the slider made from a number of metal fingers that grip lightly onto a small portion of the turns of resistance wire. The "fingers" can be moved along the coil of resistance wire by a sliding knob thus changing the "tapping" point. Wire-wound rheostats made with ratings up to several thousand watts are used in applications such as DC motor drives, electric welding controls, or in the controls for generators. The rating of the rheostat is given with the full resistance value and the allowable power dissipation is proportional to the fraction of the total device resistance in circuit.

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