A Loving Look Inside Vacuum Fluorescent Displays

Everyone knows we’re big fans of displays that differ from the plain old flat-panel LCDs that seem to adorn most devices these days. It’s a bit boring when the front panel of your widget is the same thing you stare at hour after hour while using your phone. Give us the chunky, blocky goodness of a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) any day of the week for visual interest and retro appeal.

From the video below, it seems like [Posy] certainly is in the VFD fandom too, rolling out as he does example after example of unique and complicated displays, mostly from audio equipment that had its heyday in the 1990s. In some ways, the video is just a love letter to the VFD, and that’s just fine with us. But the teardowns do provide some insights into how VFDs work, as well as suggest ways to tweak the overall look of a VFD.

For example, consider the classy white VFDs that graced a lot of home audio gear back in the day. It turns out, the phosphors used in those displays weren’t white, but closer to the blue-green color that VFDs are often associated with. But put a pink filter between the display and the world, and suddenly those turquoise phosphors look white. [Posy] does a lot of fiddling with the stock filters to change the look of his VFDs, some to good effect, others less so.

As for the internals of VFDs, [Posy]’s look at a damaged display reveals a lot about how they work. With a loose scrap of conductor shorting one of the cathodes inside the tube, the damaged VFD isn’t much to look at, and is beyond reasonable repair, but it’s kind of cool to examine the spring mechanisms that take up slack as the cathodes heat up and expand.

Thanks to [Posy] for this heartfelt look into the VFDs of yesterday. If you need more about how VFDs work, we’ve covered that before, too.

20 thoughts on “A Loving Look Inside Vacuum Fluorescent Displays

  1. The most beautiful display ever made…IMO
    Have a Kenwood TS-450SAT and still love the look
    of the VFD. And stereos from the 80’s—same thing.
    Nothing like a audio spectrum analyzer display while
    listening to RUSH :)

  2. Would be awesome if he talked about the Korg NuTube… I feel it’s probably too expensive for its own good but LOVE the concept of having to go into the VFD-sphere to create new vacuum tube devices.

  3. I’m afraid I’ve never technically owned a smatphone with an LCD unless my first Galaxy SII was an LCD model. I had some LCD e-reading devices such as a 3g iPhone and a couple Palm Pilots.

    Your point stands though, and why I am always sad to see a vintage machine running on an LCD thrown into a tube chassis, whether in a Museum or Arcade.

    1. You could always cut the glass off, fix the wire and insert it into new glass. Pulling a partial vacuum on something that small is easy. Although personally, I’m not sure what gas mix should be in there.

  4. Cash registers used and still use VFDs now mostly as the remote customer display. Much easier to see in the daylight. Some of the older displays on cash registers showed full alpha of your items. My microwave has a VFD in it. However the best looking displays were on what is now called “vintage” stereo systems.

  5. I had an Entex handheld Super Cobra arcade game when I was kid that had a VFD display. Spent a lot of time playing at it and staring at that display although I had no idea what technology it was at the time. The look of VFD is unique and very bright on a full battery.

  6. Related note:

    Noritake will gleefully find you a pin/logic compatible VFD for models that are no longer produced, and will gladly sell small volumes direct to the public. I don’t normally shill for companies, but this one’s an exception. Fantastic VFDs with huge variety, all with spec sheets/technical drawings and helpful staff.

  7. I have several stereo and home entertainment devices that are about twenty+ years old with VFD’s(Panasonic, AIWA), and they demonstrate the major flaw in VFD’s, which is longevity. All of them have lost their brightness and are now barely visible, even in contrasting darkness.

    But the stuff I have from the 80’s with segmented LED/LCD are still bright and readable.

  8. Maybe a fact that’s not very well known but in the early 2000s in Japan, most of high end car audio system used full dot matrix VFD display. Some systems would have two VFDs (ECLIPSE E3305CMT), some would use VFD with 4 or 8 level grayscale (KENWOOD FX-9100), some would have very big VFD (SONY WX-C88REC) and there even was systems with 64 colors VFD (KENWOOD KDC-X8009U)!

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