In its simplest form, an amplifier’s gain is a ratio of output over input. Like all ratios, this form of gain is unitless. However, there is an actual unit intended to represent gain, and it is called the bel.
As a unit, the bel was actually devised as a convenient way to represent power loss in telephone system wiring rather than gain in amplifiers. The unit’s name is derived from Alexander Graham Bell, the famous Scottish inventor whose work was instrumental in developing telephone systems. Originally, the bel represented the amount of signal power loss due to resistance over a standard length of electrical cable. Now, it is defined in terms of the common (base 10) logarithm of a power ratio (output power divided by input power):
Because the bel is a logarithmic unit, it is nonlinear. To give you an idea of how this works, consider the following table of figures, comparing power losses and gains in bels versus simple ratios:
It was later decided that the bel was too large of a unit to be used directly, and so it became customary to apply the metric prefix deci (meaning 1/10) to it, making it decibels, or dB. Now, the expression “dB” is so common that many people do not realize it is a combination of “deci-” and “-bel, ” or that there even is such a unit as the “bel.” To put this into perspective, here is another table contrasting power gain/loss ratios against decibels:
As a logarithmic unit, this mode of power gain expression covers a wide range of ratios with a minimal span in figures. It is reasonable to ask, “why did anyone feel the need to invent a logarithmic unit for electrical signal power loss in a telephone system?” The answer is related to the dynamics of human hearing, the perceptive intensity of which is logarithmic in nature.
Human hearing is highly nonlinear: in order to double the perceived intensity of a sound, the actual sound power must be multiplied by a factor of ten. Relating telephone signal power loss in terms of the logarithmic “bel” scale makes perfect sense in this context: a power loss of 1 bel translates to a perceived sound loss of 50 percent, or 1/2. A power gain of 1 bel translates to a doubling in the perceived intensity of the sound.
An almost perfect analogy to the bel scale is the Richter scale used to describe earthquake intensity: a 6.0 Richter earthquake is 10 times more powerful than a 5.0 Richter earthquake; a 7.0 Richter earthquake 100 times more powerful than a 5.0 Richter earthquake; a 4.0 Richter earthquake is 1/10 as powerful as a 5.0 Richter earthquake, and so on. The measurement scale for chemical pH is likewise logarithmic, a difference of 1 on the scale is equivalent to a tenfold difference in hydrogen ion concentration of a chemical solution. An advantage of using a logarithmic measurement scale is the tremendous range of expression afforded by a relatively small span of numerical values, and it is this advantage which secures the use of Richter numbers for earthquakes and pH for hydrogen ion activity.