What Is the Function of the Oscilloscope?

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What Is the Function of the Oscilloscope?
An oscilloscope measures and records wave forms. (Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

An oscilloscope measures and records various electrical fluctuations and interprets them visually as wave forms from which an analyst can get information and draw conclusions. Oscilloscopes traditionally have used a cathode-ray technology, but digital oscilloscopes have replaced them for the most part as of 2011. An oscilloscope is often used with a transducer to interpret wave energy as well.

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Oscilloscope Basics

An oscilloscope receives an electrical signal and then displays that signal as a wave form on a screen. An X axis that represents time and a Y axis represents voltage. The brightness is sometimes measured as a Z axis. When an electrical pulse enters the machine, it plots the relationship between the time and voltage of the signal and can be used to detect frequency, voltage, and electrical malfunction.


Oscilloscopes typically need some form of transducer to function. A transducer converts one form of energy into another. For example, a microphone converts vibrations caused by sound into an electrical current, whereas a loudspeaker converts an electrical signal into sound waves. A transducer takes information like a vibration and converts it into an electrical signal that the oscilloscope can read.

Common Applications

Oscillators are used to measure and properly regulate frequency as a diagnostic tool. For example, automotive mechanics analyse vehicle vibrations with oscilloscopes. Electrical technicians use them to interpret the rate and efficiency of power systems and make adjustments or corrections. They can be used to interpret sound waves as well. They are also used in seismology to study tremors and earthquakes.


In medicine, oscilloscopes measure the electrical changes in the heart and offer a graphic model of heart function when a patient is hooked up. The process, called electrocardiography, yields an electrocardiogram, or EKG, that can be seen on screen and printed out for easy distribution, as well as recorded digitally. EKGs can detect heart problems like angina, arrhythmias, heart attacks and birth defects.

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