An active device is any type of circuit component with the ability to electrically control electron flow (electricity controlling electricity). In order for a circuit to be properly called electronic, it must contain at least one active device.
Active devices include, but are not limited to, vacuum tubes, transistors, silicon-controlled rectifiers (SCRs), and TRIACs. A case might be made for the saturable reactor to be defined as an active device, since it is able to control an AC current with a DC current, but I’ve never heard it referred to as such.
All active devices control the flow of electrons through them. Some active devices allow a voltage to control this current while other active devices allow another current to do the job.
Devices utilizing a static voltage as the controlling signal are, not surprisingly, called voltage-controlled devices. Devices working on the principle of one current controlling another current are known as current-controlled devices. For the record, vacuum tubes are voltage-controlled devices while transistors are made as either voltage-controlled or current controlled types. The first type of transistor successfully demonstrated was a current-controlled device.
Differences between active and passive components
Finally, the main differences between active and passive electronic components: