We feature a lot of clocks here at Hackaday, but alarm clocks seem to be less popular for some reason. Maybe that’s because no-one enjoys being woken up in the morning, or simply because everyone uses their smartphone for that purpose already. In any case, we’re delighted to bring you [Manuel Tosone]’s beautiful Nixie tube alarm clock that cleverly combines modern and classic technologies in a single package.
The clock and alarm functionalities are implemented by a PIC24 microcontroller on a custom mainboard. It keeps track of time through its real-time clock with battery backup, and plays a song from an SD card when it’s time to wake up. A 2 x 3 W class D audio amplifier plus a pair of stereo speakers should be able to wake even the heaviest sleepers.
Of course, the real party piece is the clock’s display: four IN-4 Nixie tubes show the time, with neon tubes indicating the day of the week. The 180 V needed for the Nixies is generated by an MC34063A-based boost converter, which also powers the neon tubes.
Instead of using the standard current-limiting resistor for each Nixie tube, [Manuel] designed an array of transistor-based current sources: this enables linear control of the tubes’ brightness, and should keep the amount of light constant even as the tubes age. The individual segments are switched by SN75468 Darlington arrays, with no need for those hard-to-find SN74141 drivers.
The mainboard and the display are housed inside a 3D-printed case that mimics the style of 1980s digital alarm clocks, but with a nice 1970s twist courtesy of those Nixie tubes. [Manuel]’s GitHub page has all the schematics as well as extensive documentation describing the circuit’s operation — an excellent resource if you’re planning to build a Nixie project yourself. If Nixies aren’t your thing, you can also make an alarm clock with a VFD tube, or even roll your own luminous analog dial.
We are all used to the op-amp, as a little black box from which we can derive an astonishingly useful range of circuit functions. But of course within it lurks a transistor circuit on a chip, and understanding the operation of that circuit can give us insights into the op-amp itself. It’s a subject [IMSAI Guy] has tackled during the lockdown, recording a set of videos explaining a simple discrete-component op-amp.
He starts with the current source, a simple circuit of two diodes, a resistor, and a transistor that sets the bias for the two-transistor differential amplifier. This is followed by a look at the output driver, and we would expect that shortly to come will be a video on the output itself. Start the series with the first episode, which we’ve placed below the break.
Current limited power supplies are a ubiquitous feature of the bench, and have no doubt helped prevent many calamities and much magic smoke being released from pieces of electronics. But for all their usefulness they are a crude tool that has a current resolution in the range of amps rather than single digit milliamps or microamps.
To address this issue, [Yann Guidon] has produced a precision current source, a device designed to reliably inject tiny currents. And in a refreshing twist, it has an extremely simple circuit in the form of a couple of PNP transistors. It has a range from 20 mA to 5 µA which is set and fine-tuned by a pair of pots, and it has a front-panel ammeter hacked from a surplus pocket multimeter, allowing the current to be monitored. Being powered by its own internal battery (and a separate battery for the ammeter) it is not tied to the same ground as the circuit into which its current is being fed.
If you got your start in electronics sometime after 1980 your first project might well have been to light up an LED. Microcontroller projects often light up an LED, too, and a blinking LED is something of the “hello world” program for embedded systems. If you tried lighting up your LED with a 9 V battery directly — not that you’d admit to it — you found it would light up. Once, anyway. The excess current blows up the LED which is why you need a current-limiting resistor. However, those current limiting resistors are really a poor excuse for a current source or sink. In many applications, you need a real current source and luckily, they aren’t hard to create.
As always with Circuit VR, we’ll be using LT Spice to examine the circuits. If you need a quick tutorial, start here and come back after that. If you use Linux, don’t be dismayed. I run LT Spice under WINE and it works great. You can find all the Spice files on GitHub.