Over the years, there have been several memory and display technologies that served a particular niche for a while, only to be replaced and forgotten when a more suitable technology came along. One of those was the dekatron: a combination memory and display tube that saw some use in the 1950s and ’60s but became obsolete soon after. Their retro design and combined memory/display functionality make them excellent components for today’s clock hackers however, as [grobinson6000] demonstrates in his Dekaclock project.
A dekatron tube is basically a neon tube with ten cathodes arranged in a circle. Only one of them is illuminated at any time, and you can make the tube jump to the next cathode by applying pulses to its pins. The Dekaclock uses the 50 Hz mains frequency to generate 20 ms pulses in one tube; when it reaches 100 ms, it triggers the next tube that counts hundreds of ms, which triggers another one that counts seconds, and so on with minutes and hours.
The Dekaclock uses no semiconductors at all: the entire system is built from glass tubes and passive components. However, [grobinson6000] also built an auxiliary system, full of semiconductors, that makes the clock a bit easier to use. It sits on top of the Dekaclock and automatically sets the correct time using a GPS receiver. It also keeps track of the time displayed by the dekatrons, and tells you how far they have drifted from their initial setting.
A metrology geek will go to extreme lengths to ensure that their measurements are the best, their instruments the most accurate, and their calibration spot-on. There was a time when for time-and-frequency geeks this would have been a difficult job, but with the advent of GPS satellites overhead carrying super-accurate atomic clocks it’s surprisingly easy to be right on-frequency. [Land-boards] have a GPS 10 MHz clock that’s based around a set of modules.
Since many GPS modules have a 10 MHz output one might expect that this one to simply hook a socket to the module and have done, but instead it uses another of their projects, a fast edge pulse generator with the GPS output as its oscillator, as a buffer and signal conditioner. Add to that an QT Py microcontroller board to set up the GPS, and there you have a standalone 10 MHz source to rival any standard. Full details can be found on the project’s wiki, and the firmware can be found on GitHub.
When you have a small stock of vacuum fluorescent displays (VFDs) straight out of the 1976 Radio Shack catalog, you might sit around wondering what to do with them. When [stepawayfromthegirls] found out that his stash of seven DT-1704A tubes may be the last in existence, there was no question. They must be displayed! [stepawayfromthegirls]’ mode of display is this captivating clock build. Four VFDs with their aqua colored elements are set against a black background in a bespoke wooden case. Looking under the hood, the beauty only increases.
Keeping the build organized was not an easy task because the tubes are designed in such a way that each segment must be individually controlled. The needed I/O duties are provided by an Arduino Mega 2560 Pro (Embed). 28 2n3904’s each with their two resistors serve as drivers for each VFD segment.
The output of a 24 V AC transformer left over from the 1980s is rectified to 34 V of DC power which is then regulated to 27 V to power the tubes. Switching power supplies provide 6 V to the Arduino and 1.3 V to the filaments. If you look closely, you’ll also see a GPS module so that the clock doesn’t need to be set. To future-proof the clock against daylight savings time adjustments, a potentiometer on the back of the case allows the user to set custom hour offsets without editing any code.
We think the end result is a remarkably clean, simple, and elegant clock that he will be proud of for many years to come!
Most Hackaday readers will be familiar with the idea of a network time server; a magical box nestled away in some distant data center that runs the Network Time Protocol (NTP) and allows us to conveniently synchronize the clocks in our computers and gadgets. Particularly eager clock watchers can actually rig up their own NTP server for their personal use, and if you’re a true time aficionado like [Cristiano Monteiro], you might be interested in the portable GPS-controlled time server he recently put together.
The heart of the build is a NEO-6M GPS module which features a dedicated pulse per second (PPS) pin. The ESP8266 combines the timestamp from the GPS messages and the PPS signal to synchronize itself with the atomic clock aboard the orbiting satellite. To prevent the system from drifting too far out of sync when it doesn’t have a lock on the GPS signal, [Cristiano] is using a DS3231 I2C real-time clock module that features a high accuracy temperature-compensated crystal oscillator (TCXO).
This Arduino Pro Mini powered clock syncs the current time via GPS, with a temperature compensated DS3231 RTC to keep it on the straight and narrow between satellite downlinks. Once the clock has the correct time, how do you read it? Well, at the top you’ve got a basic numerical readout for the normies, and next to that there’s a circular LED display that looks like it could double as a sci-fi movie prop. On the lower level there’s a binary clock for the real show-offs, and as if that wasn’t enough, there’s even dual color-coded analog meters to show the hours and minutes.
[Fearless Night] has provided everything you need to follow along at home, from the Arduino source code to the 3D models of the case and Gerber files for the custom PCB. Personally we think just the top half of the clock would be more than sufficient for our timekeeping needs. If nothing else it should help save some energy, as the clock currently pulls an incredible 20 watts with all those LEDs firing off.
The Raspberry Pi is an extremely versatile little computer, but even its most ardent fans would acknowledge that there are some areas in which its hardware is slightly lacking. One of these is in the field of timing, the little board has no real-time clock. Users must rely on the on-board crystal oscillator, which is good enough as a microprocessor clock but subject to the vagaries of temperature as it is, not so much as a long-term timepiece.
[Manawyrm] has tackled this problem in a rather unusual way, by dispensing entirely with the crystal oscillator on an older Pi model and instead using a clock derived from a GPS source. The source she’s used is a Leo Bodnar mini precision GPS reference clock, which includes a low-jitter synthesiser that can be set to the Pi’s 19.2 MHz required clock. Unexpectedly this also required a simple LC low-pass filter which was made on a sheet of PCB material, because the Pi at first appeared to be picking up a harmonic frequency. The Pi now has a clock that’s sufficiently stable for tasks such as WSPR transmission without constant referral to NTP or other timing sources to keep it on-track.
Making a GPS clock is a relatively straightforward process on the face of it. Buy a GPS module for a few dollars, hook it up to a microcontroller board of your choice, pick the appropriate library and write a bit of code, et voila! A clock with time-wonk bragging rights!
Of course, your GPS clock will always tell the right time, but it won’t be really right. Your microcontroller will introduce all sorts of timing errors and jitter, so at best it’ll only be nearly right. [Rick MacDonald] has been striving to quantify and minimise these errors in his OpenPPS project, which aims to be as accurate a GPS time and frequency reference as possible.
In a very comprehensive multi-page write-up, he details his progression, through the GPS modules he used, his experience with timing jitter when he used an ESP32 alone to process their output, and then his experiments with an FPGA and then temperature-compensated oscillators. It moves from being a mere description of a GPS clock into a fascinating run-down of both GPS timing itself and the development pitfalls he encountered along the way. At the end of it all he has a GPS clock in a smart 3D-printed enclosure which he admits as yet doesn’t do anything more than tell the time, but as he points out it’s a clock with minimised jitter, delay, and drift, and it remains an ongoing project that will evolve into a full-blown time and frequency standard.