Light Pipes and LEDs Team Up for a Modern Take on the Nixie Tube

There’s no doubting the popularity of Nixie tubes these days. They lend a retro flair to modern builds and pop up in everything from clocks to weather stations. But they’re not without their problems — the high voltage, the limited tube life, and the fact that you can have them in any color you want as long as it’s orange. Seems like it might be time for a modern spin on the Nixie that uses LEDs and light pipes. Meet Nixie Pipes.

Inspired by an incandescent light-pipe alphanumeric display from a 1970s telephone exchange, [John Whittington]’s design captures the depth and look of a Nixie by using laminated acrylic sheets. Each layer is laser etched with dots in the shape of a character or icon, and when lit from below by a WS2812B LED, the dots pick up the light and display the character in any color. [John]’s modular design allows one master and an arbitrary number of slaves, so large displays can simply be plugged together. [John] is selling a limited run of the Nixie Pipes online, but he’s also open-sourced the project so you can build your own modules.

We really like the modularity and flexibility of Nixie Pipes, and the look is pretty nice too. Chances are good that it won’t appeal to the hardcore Nixie aficionado, though, in which case building your own Nixies might be a good project to tackle.

35 thoughts on “Light Pipes and LEDs Team Up for a Modern Take on the Nixie Tube

  1. Even though it’s a kind of cool to see the slices to light up from the side, too, I’m just wondering the amount of cross-unit light leakage this causes. The modular design is still a neat idea.

    1. Lots. I would have gone with a 7 segment design. That can be implemented in far fewer layers because one glass can contain multiple elements that are lit separately – the LED is masked to not point at the other segments.

      1. Then just go with 7seg design, no need to do it on separate slides lighted from side. “Nixie” way is only for aesthetic appeal so you can have “nice” symbols, not 7seg symbols. 7seg is a “alternative” to nixie (not better, not worse, just different).

          1. Multi-segmented displays are a whole other animal. People choose to accept the non-planar approach because they find segmented displays ugly. It is true that there are ways to make 7-segment and 14-segment displays less ugly, such as by overlapping as you suggest, but this is essentially “polishing feces”. Similarly there are pixel-based displays that at least mitigate some of the ugliness, but mainly by trading it for a different class of ugliness. For those who want well-formed numerals, there are multi-plane approaches such as actual Nixie tubes and the edge-illuminated types such as the project described here. There are also projection displays that form very nice characters and are planar, but they are a lot of trouble to build since you have to make and align ten optical systems for each digit. Similarly there are displays that function similarly to ancient “chain” or “drum” printers, by having masks for all of the digits spinning in front of LEDs that only flash when the desired digit is in front of them. Aside from projects using the motor and platter from a hard drive (which of course display the numbers on an arc), I haven’t seen much done with these.

      1. It’s not so much leakage of light as it is reflections from both surfaces of each acrylic plate. Just like the “infinity mirror” effect. So using an anti-reflection coating on both surfaces should cut down on that. Not sure polarizers would do the job, and if they would, where would you put them, since reflections are happening between each surface?

      2. Besides, all those internal reflections make the digits look almost solid. I think it actually helps that the numerals are made up of many points rather than scored curves, because the reflections of the non-illuminated ones look almost random, while the illuminated ones are reinforced by their myriad reflections.

      3. polarisers could be interesting/problematic as acrylic is optically active (it rotates polarisation)

        I guess you couls put a Farrady isolator on the front, I’m not sure what thickness of acrylic that needs.

        spacing the sheets apart with black paper frame gaskets would help limit inter-layer leakage, especially
        at the bottom,

        covering the exposed edges with aluminium foil would help limit ambient light leakage.

        IMO they should be lit more brightly and viewed through a filter which limits ambient, like traditional nixies are
        smaller dots would probably help too.

      1. I wonder why nobody tried to do some “nixie-like” display using ELWire. That sounds like the perfect tech for that, and it could even fit in a small glass bulb to get the same retro look.

        The only issue I see is you have a minimal length of wire to be connected to the driver (+/- 30 cm or 1 foot), but a specially made driver could probably be designed to work with shorter wires.

        Also it seems you need relais or triacs to drive them, but once again a specially designed controller could remove the pain.

        1. EL was a disappointing technology in the 1960s (I worked on a radar display that used them to display transponder codes, and they started off bright (in a dark room because of other display limitations) but were pretty dim within six months, and you could clearly see which segments got used the most), and it’s disappointing today – see this article where somebody tried to make a clock display with EL wire: https://hackaday.io/project/18879-el-wire-clock. The author’s complaint there is low brightness – not really usable during the day. Also, what they misleadingly call “OLED” displays (there are no diodes involved) are really electroluminescent, and guess what? Main problem is low lifetime. Expected 50% reduction in brightness in less than 5 years, but get this: that’s assuming ONE HOUR of use per day.

          Maybe somebody can come up with a liquid phosphor, so that we can put enameled wire in plastic tubing, and just squirt in more phosphor goop when it wears out… It would look like those cyalume necklaces they sell at the fair, but would be blinkable! Arduino!

      1. I shared the links to several modern implementations of this but that post is stuck in moderation hell now. :)
        I’m really considering making some of these as a clock to put on the wall in my home office. It’s so cool.

  2. Could we please stop calling every kind of antique looking display a Nixie? Nixies are a thing. Edge lit displays are a different thing which have been used for decades. Numatrons, which are incandescent seven segment displays in cylindrical vacuum tubes, are yet another thing. There were also flat gas-discharge displays in 7-segment format that physically resemble gas flourescent displays, except they needed 180VDC to operate. Not Nixies either.

    1. +1 – that’s what I came here to say. It’s all right to say “modern take on the Nixie tube”, it’s NOT ok to call it “Nixie Pipes”. That’s just stupid.
      It’s not even an innovation. I played with a Non Linear Systems differential voltmeter in 1970 that was old and obsolete THEN – this article, http://www.hp9825.com/html/dvms.html, indicates it was introduced in 1953. It used the incandescent version of this and telephone stepper switches to zero in digit-by-digit (like we had to do by hand with the Fluke 803 (http://www.radiomuseum.org/r/fluke_differential_voltmeter_803b.html)) on the measurement. I think they were making their displays in-house before IEE started producing them as a product in their own right. Replacing the GE 328 incandescents with full-color LEDs is a minor and obvious upgrade, and using the name “Nixie” in the branding is just a lame attempt at cashing in on the Nixie Fever trend. Unfortunately I was not able to find what the brand name for these devices was

      HOWEVER: This is a beautiful implementation. I’m not usually a fan of laser-cut projects, because they look so characteristically laser-cut, but this one works.

      One suggestion to [John] if you’re reading this: in the NLS displays, the lamps were mounted in slots in an aluminum bar, which both edge-lit the plexiglas and hid the filament from being seen directly. You might want to mask the bottom 1/4″ or so of each digit to even further improve the excellent look you’ve achieved.

    2. How about calling all forms of recording of visual information “film” and the act of doing it “filming”? If you’re not using a strip of flexible plastic coated with light sensitive chemicals, it’s not film and you aren’t filming.

      Same goes for audio recording and data storage, and video too. If you’re calling it tape or say you’re taping, unless you’re using a strip of plastic coated with magnetic metal powder, it’s not tape and you aren’t taping.

      Things and actions have their proper names. Please use them. It might be useful in a legal way to you someday.
      “I taped the conversation with my smartphone.”
      “No, you didn’t. There’s no tape in your phone. Move to strike the evidence as inadmissible due to inaccurate terminology.”

      1. Being a “film” producer, I am of course aware of this. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a replacement word for “film” or “tape”. Did I “chip” that event? That doesn’t seem right. Maybe I “flashed” it. No, that means something else. I think I’ll stay with “filmed”.

          1. “Record” is ambiguous since that term is already generally used for recording sound. Saying “I’m going to record this conference” isn’t as clear as “I’m going to film this conference”.

  3. Emmh, it’s best to really know the legacy of a particular tech. Unlike the EQ vs. spectrum display meme, Nixie has been Kleenex-ed. Bingo-ed.
    Both this and the linked project use dots which fails to impress like like the smooth classic curves of proper hand drawn characters exploited best by the Nixie. Can’t a laser cut a smooth line?
    The original setup was a set of linked metal stencils that were set up to engrave Plexiglas. Such signs hung down from a short arm with a mat between two sides as room numbers or office title names etc. Also up as desk labels, receptionist etc. I have seen a pop-zine with this edge lit stuff pre-war.

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