A relay is an electrical switch that opens and closes under control of another electrical circuit. In the original form, the switch is operated by an electromagnet to open or close one or many sets of contacts. It was invented by Joseph Henry in 1835. Because a relay is able to control an output circuit of higher power than the input circuit, it can be considered, in a broad sense, to be a form of electrical amplifier.
These contacts can be either Normally Open (NO), Normally Closed (NC), or change-over contacts.
Normally-open contacts connect the circuit when the relay is activated; the circuit is disconnected when the relay is inactive. It is also called Form A contact or "make" contact. Form A contact is ideal for applications that require to switch a high-current power source from a remote device.
Normally-closed contacts disconnect the circuit when the relay is activated; the circuit is connected when the relay is inactive. It is also called Form B contact or "break" contact. Form B contact is ideal for applications that require the circuit to remain closed until the relay is activated.
Change-over contacts control two circuits: one normally-open contact and one normally-closed contact with a common terminal. It is also called Form C contact
Relays are used:
to control a high-voltage circuit with a low-voltage signal, as in some types of modems,
to control a high-current circuit with a low-current signal, as in the starter solenoid of an automobile,
to detect and isolate faults on transmission and distribution lines by opening and closing circuit breakers (protection relays),
to isolate the controlling circuit from the controlled circuit when the two are at different potentials, for example when controlling a mains-powered device from a low-voltage switch. The latter is often applied to control office lighting as the low voltage wires are easily installed in partitions, which may be often moved as needs change. They may also be controlled by room occupancy detectors in an effort to conserve energy,
to perform logic functions. For example, the boolean AND function is realised by connecting NO relay contacts in series, the OR function by connecting NO contacts in parallel. The change-over or Form C contacts perform the XOR (exclusive or) function. Similar functions for NAND and NOR are accomplished using NC contacts. Due to the failure modes of a relay compared with a semiconductor, they are widely used in safety critical logic, such as the control panels of radioactive waste handling machinery.
to perform time delay functions. Relays can be modified to delay opening or delay closing a set of contacts. A very short (a fraction of a second) delay would use a copper disk between the armature and moving blade assembly. Current flowing in the disk maintains magnetic field for a short time, lengthening release time. For a slightly longer (up to a minute) delay, a dashpot is used. A dashpot is a piston filled with fluid that is allowed to escape slowly. The time period can be varied by increasing or decreasing the flow rate. For longer time periods, a mechanical clockwork timer is installed.