The Art Of Nixies Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, October 28th at noon Pacific for The Art of Nixies Hack Chat with Dalibor Farný!

When they were invented in the 1950s, Nixie tubes were a huge leap forward in display technology. In the days before affordable LEDs made seven-segment displays a commodity, there were few alternatives to the charming glow of the clear and legible characters inside Nixies. Sturdy and reliable, the cold-cathode displays found their way into everything from scientific instruments to test equipment, and even some of the earliest computers and the equipment that formed the foundation of the Space Race sported the venerable tubes.

But time marches on, and a display that requires high voltage and special driver circuits isn’t long for a world where LEDs are cheap and easy to design with. Nixies fell from favor through the late 1960s and 1970s, to the point where new tubes were only being made by the Russians, until that supply dried up as well. Rediscovered by hobbyists for use in quirky clocks and other displays, any stock left over from the Nixie’s heyday are quickly being snapped up, putting the tubes on the fast track to unobtainium status.

That’s not to say that you can’t get brand new Nixie tubes, of course. Artisanal manufacturers like Dalibor Farný have taken the Nixie to a whole new level, with big, beautiful tubes that are handcrafted from the best materials. Reviving the somewhat lost art of Nixie manufacturing wasn’t easy, but the tubes that Dalibor makes in a castle in the Czech Republic now find their way into cool clocks and other builds around the world. He’ll join us on the Hack Chat to dive into the art and science of Nixies, and what’s going on with his mysterious “Project H”.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, October 28 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones baffle you as much as us, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

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State Of The Art For Nixies Gets A Boost From Dalibor Farny’s Supersize Prototype

Never one to pass up on a challenge, artisanal Nixie tube maker [Dalibor Farný] has been undertaking what he calls “Project H”, an enormous array of 121 Nixie tubes for an unnamed client. What’s so special about that? Did we mention that each Nixie is about the size of a sandwich plate?

Actually, we did, back in May when we first noted Project H in our weekly links roundup. At that time [Dalibor] had only just accepted the project, knowing that it would require inventing everything about these outsized Nixies from scratch. At 150 mm in diameter, these will be the largest Nixies ever made. The design of the tube is evocative of the old iconoscope tubes from early television history, or perhaps the CRT from an old oscilloscope.

Since May, [Dalibor] has done most of the design work and worked out the bugs in a lot of the internal components. But as the video below shows, he still has some way to go. Everything about his normal construction process had to be scaled up, so many steps, like the chemical treatment of the anode cup, are somewhat awkward. He also discovered that mounting holes in the cathodes were not the correct diameter, requiring some clench-worthy manual corrections. The work at the glassblower’s lathe was as nerve wracking as it was fascinating; every step of the build appears fraught with some kind of peril.

Sadly, this prototype failed to come together — a crack developed in the glass face of the tube. But ever the pro, [Dalibor] took it in stride and will learn from this attempt. Given that he’s reduced the art of the Nixie to practice, we’re confident these big tubes will come together eventually.

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A Dancing Cowboy Nixie Tube

If there were four words you never expected to hear in sequence, they would probably be “Dancing cowboy Nixie tube”. But that’s just what [Glasslinger] has made, and it’s exactly what it sounds like – an encapsulated cowboy that dances.

We’ve placed the resulting video below the break, and in it we see a compelling tour through the construction of a Nixie, and the specialist tools required. Little touches such as the need to insulate with glass capillary tube whose wires which shouldn’t glow, the construction of the envelope and stem, and the painstaking layout of the various cowboy components on a sheet of mica are carefully explained.

The tube takes shape in front of us, a driver PCB is etched, and the whole arrangement is placed in a custom wooden box. This is old-school construction at its finest, with the only touch of modernity coming from an Arduino Uno that schedules the various segments. It’s not beyond imagination though to see in time gone by that a Honeywell mechanical sequencer might have been used for the same task.

We’ve brought you [Glasslinger]’s work before of course, but we’ve also seen some more conventional self-made Nixies.

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How To Make A Pilotron, The Forgotten Tube

The vacuum tube is largely ignored in modern electronic design, save for a few audio applications such as guitar and headphone amps. The transistor is smaller, cheaper, and inordinately easier to manufacture. By comparison, showing us just how much goes into the manufacture of a tube, [glasslinger] decided to make a wire-element pilotron – from scratch!

To say this is an involved build is an understatement. Simply creating the glass tube itself takes significant time and skill. [glasslinger] shows off the skills of a master, however – steadily working through the initial construction, before showing off advanced techniques necessary to seal in electrodes, produce the delicate wire grid, and finally pull vacuum and seal the tube completely.

The project video is an hour long, and no detail is skipped. From 2% thoriated tungsten wire to annealing torches and grades of glass, it’s all there. It’s enough that an amateur could reproduce the results, given enough attempts and a complete shop of glassworking equipment.

The pilotron may be a forgotten design, but in 2018 it once again gets its day in the sun. Overall, it’s a testament to [glasslinger]’s skill and ability to be able to produce such a device that not only looks the part, but is fully functional on an electronic level, as well.

There’s a few people out there still building valves the old fashioned way, and we’d love to see more – tip ’em if you got ’em. Video after the break.

[Thanks to Morris for the tip!]

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Bask In The Warm Glow Of DIY Incandescent Bulbs

With most of the apparatus and instruments we now take for granted yet to be developed, the early pioneers of the Electric Age had to bring a lot to the lab besides electrical skills. Machining, chemistry, and metallurgy were all basic skills that the inventor either had to have or hire in. Most of these skills still have currency of course, but one that was once crucial – glassblowing – has sadly fallen into relative obscurity.

There are still practitioners of course, like [2SC1815] who is learning how to make homemade incandescent light bulbs. The Instructable is in both English and Japanese, and the process is explained in some detail. Basic supplies include soda-lime glass tubing and pre-coiled tungsten filaments. Support wires are made from Dumet, an alloy of iron, nickel, and cobalt with an oxidized copper cladding which forms a vacuum-tight seal with molten glass. The filament is crimped to the Dumet leads and pinched into a stem of glass tubing. A bulb is blown in another piece of tubing and the two are welded together, evacuated with a vacuum pump, and sealed. The bulbs are baked after sealing to drive off any remaining water vapor. The resulting bulbs have a cheery glow and a rustic look that we really like.

Of course, it’s not a huge leap from DIY light bulbs to making your own vacuum tubes. That’s how [Dalibor Farny] got started on his handmade Nixie business, after all.