It’s A Nixie! It’s A VFD! No, It’s A Custom LED Display In A Tube

Like the look of Nixies but they just seem a little overdone? Or perhaps you just don’t want the hassles of a high-voltage power supply? Then maybe these faux-Nixie LED “tube” displays will find a way into your next clock build.

For his 2018 Hackaday Prize entry, [bobricius] decided that what the world needs is a Nixie that’s not a Nixie. To that end, each display is formed by seven surface-mount LEDs soldered to a seven-segment shaped PCB and slipped into a glass tube. The LEDs are in 4014 packages so they’re only 4 millimeters long, but what they lack in size they make up for in brightness. We’re not sure if it’s a trick of the camera, but the LEDs certainly seem to put off a bluish glow that’s reminiscent of vacuum-fluorescent displays — it’s like a Nixie and a VFD all rolled up in one package.  The current case, which hides the clock circuitry on the lower part of the PCB, is just plastic, but this would look spiffy in a fine wooden case.

Could this be another Nixie tube killer that never was? Perhaps, but wherever it ends up, we like the look of it, and we’re glad it’s one of the early Hackaday Prize entries. Have you got something to enter in the greatest hardware competition on Earth? If not, get cracking!

42 thoughts on “It’s A Nixie! It’s A VFD! No, It’s A Custom LED Display In A Tube

    1. how dare you say “efficient” this is hackaday. Most of the projects here don’t care about usefulness or efficiency… just like art doesn’t care about efficiency… also high voltage on this website is considered “cool”.

    2. Nixies are / can be efficient…
      My ZEN nixie clock (built by Dalibor Farny) which uses 6 very large nixie tubes, only uses about 6-8 watts at full brightness. These also don’t get hot at all, not in any noticeable way anyways.

      1. 6-8 watts isn’t notably efficient for a clock. A whole computer running linux can run on less that three watts.

        But considering the cold war incandescent hardware, 6-8 watts is pretty dang good. That’s cool.

  1. I like the idea of the PCB stretching out into the display. Despite it from being an expensive solution for a PCB design (making the displays separate could reduce the required PCB material, reducing cost and allowing for larger display sizes). But perhaps also because these tiny “poles” might break and will be difficult to repair. But considering the strength of PCB material and the sturdy enclosure that is not an issue for the finished project. Nice “out of the box thinking” here, well done.

    The readability of this display could be improved a little by sliding in some colored foil into the tubes.Considering the size of the tubes a simple wrapper from a piece of candy could do the trick.

    1. In first version I want make separated tubes and connectors to main board, this is easier for assembly, board cost about 1$, Yes is breakable but tubes are for protection :) i have plan for foil and wooden case, give me few weeks ;)

  2. I like it!!

    Given the burgeoning market of LED based “antique” light bulbs that have LED “filaments” to mimic the light from an old long-filament bulb, it would be a small jump to manufacturing a very very close analogy to a real Nixie using wire/LED segments rather than SMDs. Unfortunately the manufacturing will likely be more difficult.

      1. But get this: according to the designer of this giant Nixie clock, he added “some decorative mesh and blue glow in the case and down into the tubes as well as some wire mesh around the digits for the authentic nixie look”. Just to be clear here, no real Nixie tube ever exhibited a blue glow, unless it had leaked badly enough that it no longer worked.

      2. I’m wondering if polyester sheets, maybe .02″ thick, could be edge-lit effectively. The biggest problem with both real Nixies and with edge-lit acrylic displays was that the stack of digits was thick enough to hinder readability at even moderate off-axis angles, so this could be a fix for that particular problem. There’s no problem with finding LEDs that are that narrow, but I’m not sure about how polyester (Mylar, or PET) would work, optically.
        The other really nice thing about edge-lit displays is that they’re not limited to single characters – whole phases can be etched in the wafers.

  3. I saw the image with the blackened Nixie tube and thought that was the end result of this project. It would be cool (and maybe make it more readable?) if you took a torch or something to the glass and made it a bit darker. Very cool project though. Could also be a cool way to make a VU meter or something like that.

    1. Yeah, my only complaint is readability. Smoked glass or coloured plastic tubes (or cellotape like suggested by Jan) would improve this heaps.
      No doubt easier in person, but I had to squint to actually see what the numbers were.

  4. “It’s a Nixie! It’s a VFD! No, It’s a Custom LED Display in a Tube”

    Perhaps a more accurate–and honest (“…faux-nixie…”? Puh-leeze!)–title would have been

    Custom LED Displays in Tubes.

    Congratulations, [bobricius], on your tremendous imagination and surpassing hard work. All good things to you.

    1. They can call them nixies all they want as far as I’m concerned. Maybe more stuff like this will help prevent people from smashing and gutting vintage test equipment just to make their stupid nixie clocks (with the obvious exception of those built by Dalibor Farny).

  5. What’s really funny about this is that in recent years, people have been accenting neon displays and vacuum tube filaments using blue or purple LEDs. Now here’s a display in purple LEDs – maybe what it needs is some orange accent lighting, to give the impression of filaments.

    1. Yes, it is purple because when I get boards I had only purple leds and I want hurry test it. now I have blue, ice blue, green and white I use them in new board revision.

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