Join us on Wednesday, August 11 at noon Pacific for the Vintage Displays Hack Chat with Fran Blanche!
In terms of ease of integration and density of the information that can be shown, it’s hard to argue with the fact that modern displays like LCD panels are anything but superior to the character-based displays of yore. Throw one into a project, add a little code from a few off-the-shelf libraries to drive it, and you’re on to the next job.
Efficient, yes, but what does this approach do for the engineer’s soul? What design itch does it scratch; what aesthetic does it celebrate? Nostalgic questions, true, and not every project lends itself to exploring old display technologies. But some still do, thankfully, and when the occasion calls for it, we’re glad that there are those out there who are still actively involved in the retro display community, making sure that what was once state-of-the-art technology is still able to be added to modern projects.
There’s no doubt that Fran Blanche is one of those passing the torch of vintage displays down to the next generation. You’ll certainly know Fran from her popular Fran Lab channel on YouTube, where in addition to about a million other interests, she has explored some really cool vintage displays: the Nimo cathode-ray tube, super-bright incandescent seven-segment displays, the delightfully strange “Bina-View”, and many, many more. Fran will stop by the Hack Chat to talk about all these retro displays, what she’s learned from collecting them, and how they shaped the displays we take so much for granted these days. Oh, and perhaps we’ll also talk about her upcoming ride on “G-Force 1” as well.
Our Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, August 11 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.
Pity the aficionado of rare vintage displays. While Nixies and VFD tubes get all the attention and benefit from a thriving market to satisfy demand, the rarer displays from the mid-20th century period are getting harder and harder to find. One copy of an especially rare display is hard enough to find. Six copies for a clock? That’s a tall order.
That doesn’t mean you can’t fudge it, though, which is how this faux-NIMO clock came to be. [Paul Bricmont] was inspired by [Fran Blanche]’s NIMO tube primer, wherein the rare, single-digit CRT display was put through its paces. We’ve got to admit, it’s an easy display to fall in love with, thanks to its eerie blue phosphor glow, high voltage supply, and general quirkiness. [Paul] was unable to lay hands on a single tube, though, so he faked it with six tiny TFT displays and some plastic lenses. The lenses mimic the curved front glass of the original NIMO, while the TFT displays provide the stencil-style images of each numeral. The phosphor glow comes from replacing the stock white TFT backlight with a Neopixel array that can produce just the right shade of blue-green. 3D-printed modules hold two digits each, and the usual Arduino components run the show. The effect is quite convincing, although we bet some software tweaks could add things like faux burn-in and perhaps soften the edges of the digits to really sell it.
What other rare displays could be replicated this way? Given the variety of displays that were tried in the pre-LED era, it may be a rich vein to mine.
With the wealth of Nixie projects out there, there are points at which Hackaday is at risk of becoming Nixieaday. Nixie clocks, Nixie calculators, Nixie weather stations, and Nixie power meters have all graced our pages. And with good reason – Nixie tubes have a great retro look, and the skills needed to build a driver are a cut above calculating the right value for a series resistor for an LED display.
But not everyone loved Nixies back in the day, and some manufacturers did their best to unseat the venerable cold cathode tubes. [Fran Blanche] came across one of these contenders, a tiny cathode ray tube called the Nimo, and after a long hiatus in storage, she decided to put the tube to the test. After detailing some of the history of the Nimo and its somewhat puzzling marketing — its manufacturer, IEE, was already making displays to compete with Nixies, and seven-segment LEDs were on the rise at the time — [Fran] goes into the dangerous details of driving the display. With multiple supply voltages required, including a whopping 1,700 V DC for the anode, the Nimo was anything but trivial to integrate into products, which probably goes a long way to explaining why it never really caught on.
If you happen to have one of these little bits of solid unobtanium, [Fran]’s video below will go a long way to bringing back its ghostly green glow. You might say that [Fran] has a thing for oddball technologies of the late 60s — after all, she’s recreating the Apollo DSKY electroluminescent display, and she recently helped a model Sputnik regain its voice.
Continue reading “The Nixie Tube Killer That Never Was”