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.

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NixieBot Films Your Tweets

[Robin Bussell]’s NixieBot is a mash up of new age electronics and retro vintage components and he’s got a bunch of hacks crammed in there. It’s a Nixie tube clock which displays tweets, takes pictures of the display when it encounters tweets with a #NixieBotShowMe hash tag, and then posts requested pictures back to twitter. If a word is eight characters, it takes a snapshot. If it’s a longer message, NixieBot takes a series of pictures of each word, converts it to an animated GIF, and then posts the tweet. In between, it displays random tweets every twenty seconds. You can see the camera setup in the image below and you should check out the @nixiebot twitter feed to see some of the action.

nixiebot_05For the display, he’s using eight big vintage Burroughs B7971 Nixie Tubes. These aren’t easy to source, and current prices hover around $100 each if you can find them. The 170V DC needed to run each tube comes from a set of six 12V to 170V converter boards specifically designed to drive these tubes. Each board can drive at least a couple of nixies, so [Robin]’s able to use just four boards for the eight tubes. Each nixie is driven by its own “B7971 SmartSocket“, a dedicated PIC16F690 micro-controller board custom designed for the purpose. A serial protocol makes it easy to daisy-chain the SmartSockets to build multi character displays.

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Hackaday Links: November 20, 2016

The Raspberry Pi 2 is getting an upgrade. No, this news isn’t as big as you would imagine. The Raspberry Pi 2 is powered by the BCM2836 SoC, an ARM Cortex-A7 that has served us well over the years. The ‘2836 is going out of production, and now the Raspberry Pi foundation is making the Pi 2 with the chip found in the Raspberry Pi 3, the BCM2837. Effectively, the Pi 2 is now a wireless-less (?) version of the Pi 3. It still costs $35, the same as the Pi 3, making it a rather dumb purchase for the home hacker. There are a lot of Pi 2s in industry, though, and they don’t need WiFi and Bluetooth throwing a wrench in the works.

So you’re using a Raspberry Pi as a media server, but you have far too many videos for a measly SD card. What’s the solution? A real server, first off, but there is another option. WDLabs released their third iteration of the PiDrive this week. It’s a (spinning) hard disk, SD card for the software, and a USB Y-cable for powering the whole thing. Also offered is a USB thumb drive providing 64 GB of storage, shipped with an SD card with the relevant software.

Mr. Trash Wheel is the greatest Baltimore resident since Edgar Allan Poe, John Waters, and Frank Zappa. Mr. Trash Wheel eats trash, ducks, kegs, and has kept Inner Harbor relatively free of gonoherpasyphilaids for the past few years. Now there’s a new trash wheel. Professor Trash Wheel will be unveiled on December 4th.

YOU MUST VOICE CONTROL ADDITIONAL PYLONS. With an ‘official’ StarCraft Protoss pylon and a Geeetech voice recognition module, [Scott] built a voice controlled lamp.

Everyone loves gigantic Nixie tubes, so here’s a Kickstarter for a gigantic Nixie clock. There are no rewards for just the tube, but here’s a manufacturer of 125mm tall Nixies.

Here’s an interesting think piece from The STL file format is ancient and holding us all back. This much we have known since the first Makerbot, and it doesn’t help that Thingiverse is still a thing, and people don’t upload their source files. What’s the solution? 3MF and AMF file formats, apparently. OpenSCAD was not mentioned in this think piece.

“Nixie” Tubes Sound Good

A tube is a tube is a tube. If one side emits electrons, another collects them, and a further terminal can block them, you just know that someone’s going to use it as an amplifier. And so when [Asa] had a bunch of odd Russian Numitron tubes on hand, an amplifier was pretty much a foregone conclusion.

A Numitron is a “low-voltage Nixie”, or more correctly a single-digit VFD in a Nixiesque form factor. So you could quibble that there’s nothing new here. But if you dig into the PDF writeup, you’ll find that the tubes have been very nicely characterised, situating this project halfway between dirty hack and quality lab work.

It’s been a while since we’ve run a VFD-based amplifier project, but it’s by no means the first time. Indeed, we seem to run one every couple years. For instance, here is a writeup from 2010, and the next in 2013. Extrapolating forward, you’re going to have to wait until 2019 before you see this topic again.

Hot Russian Tubes

On the heels of our post on retro-Soviet transistor teardowns and die-shots, [nikitas] wrote in to tell us about a huge thread on rare vacuum devices of all varieties: oddball cathode-ray tubes, obscure Nixies, and strange Soviet valves. We thought the other forum post was overwhelming at just over 110 pages, but how about 391 pages (and counting) of blown-glass electronics?

If you read through the decaptholon, we mentioned that a particularly enthusiastic poster, [lalka], looked to be cataloguing every Soviet oscillator circuit. It turns out that he’s also the one behind this incredible (random) compendium of everything that’s had the air sucked out of it.

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45-Year Old Nixie Calculator Turned UDP Server

In this beautiful and well-documented reverse engineering feat of strength, [Eric Cohen] reverse-engineered a 1971 Singer calculator to gain control of the fabulous Nixie tubes inside. Where a lesser hacker would have simply pulled the tubes out and put them in a more modern housing, [Eric] kept it all intact.

Not even content to gut the box and toss some modern brains inside, he snooped out the calculator’s internal wiring, interfaced a Raspberry Pi to it, and overrode the calculator’s (860 Hz) bus system. With the Pi on the inside, controlling the Nixie tubes, he did what any of us would do: set up a UDP server and write an Android app for his phone to push ASCII data over to the former calculator. When it’s not running in its default clock mode, naturally.


All of this is extraordinarily well documented both on his website, in a slide presentation (PDF), and in video (embedded below). Our hats are tipped to the amazing attention to detail and fantastic documentation.

Now where is that Singer EC1117 calculator from 1971 that we’ve been saving for just such an occasion?

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Hackaday Prize Entry: A Programmable Calculator With Nixie Tubes

For [Robert]’s entry into The Hackaday Prize, he’s starting off with some basic questions. What’s better than a Nixie tube? More Nixies. What’s better than a calculator? An RPN calculator. What do you get when you combine the two? A calculator that is absurdly large, even by 1970s desk calculator standards, uses a lot of power, and takes up too much space. Sounds good to us.

Nixies, at least when there are a lot of them, are tricky devices. They only draw about 50mA of current, but they only light up when above 150V. That’s only about seven watts, and it’s easy enough for the Arduino-heads out there to build a circuit to drive a few Nixies for a clock. Driving dozens of Nixies is a bit harder. For [Robert]’s RPN calculator, he’s estimating a little under 50W of power being dumped into this calculator.

With the considerable power considerations taken care of, [Robert] turned his attention to the display board. This is going to be a very impressive build, with 80 IN-12B tubes organized in four stack levels of twenty tubes each. The tubes will be controlled with the Maxim MAX6922 VFD driver. This chip has a serial interface, which means it’s relatively easy to have any microcontroller blink these tubes. And of course, it does double-duty as a clock.

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