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3.3.1: Theory Overview

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    A potentiometer is a three terminal resistive device. The outer terminals present a constant resistance which is the nominal value of the device. A third terminal, called the wiper arm, is in essence a contact point that can be moved along the resistance. Thus, the resistance seen from one outer terminal to the wiper plus the resistance from the wiper to the other outer terminal will always equal the nominal resistance of the device. This three terminal configuration is used typically to adjust voltage via the voltage divider rule, hence the name potentiometer, or pot for short. While the resistance change is often linear with rotation (i.e., rotating the shaft 50% yields 50% resistance), other schemes, called tapers, are also found. One common non-linear taper is the logarithmic taper. It is important to note that linearity can be compromised (sometimes on purpose) if the resistance loading the potentiometer is not significantly larger in value than the potentiometer itself.

    If only a single outer terminal and the wiper are used, the device is merely an adjustable resistor and is referred to as a rheostat. These may be placed in-line with a load to control the load current, the greater the resistance, the smaller the current.

    3.3.1: Theory Overview is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by James M. Fiore.

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