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A cylindrical surface‐discharge device was developed to study photolytically pumped and photoinitiated gas laser schemes. The discharge plasma plasma produces intense ultraviolet and vaccum‐ultraviolet (vuv) broadband irradiation of a 3‐l active volume. Homogeneous, large‐area (≥103 cm2) plasma shells are formed adjacent to the interior surfaces of dielectric cylinders by an electric discharge. Although the device resembles a Z‐pinch, the plasma shells do not collapse to the axis and operation with various gases at high pressure (≤2× 105 Pa) is possible. Initial experiments have emphasized electrical, gasdynamic, and radiative characterization of the device. Current wave forms are oscillatory, indicating an impedance mismatch between the surface‐discharge source and capacitor‐bank driver. A radially converging shock wave is launched by the discharge while the expanding plasma shells remain tightly pressed against the dielectric surfaces. Operation at a peak current of 94 kA produced approximately 45 J of radiated energy within the vuv spectral band from 170 to 210 nm in a 1.7‐μs full‐width‐at‐half‐maximum pulse, which represents a conversion efficiency for stored electrical energy into radiation of 2.7% and an equivalent brightness temperature of ≂13 500 K. The effective optical pulse width decreases as one moves from the visible into the vuv spectral regions. vuv radiation is only efficiently produced during the initial current half‐period, i.e., during the gap breakdown process.