Turning OLEDs And Acrylic Into Faux Nixie Tubes

Love ’em or hate ’em, Nixies and the retro clocks they adorn are here to stay. At least until the world’s stock of surplus Soviet tubes is finally depleted, that is. The glow discharge tubes were last mass manufactured in the 1980s, and while they’re not too hard to get a hold of yet, they will be eventually. And what better way to get ready for that dreaded day than by rolling your own OLED faux Nixie tubes?

Granted, [Derek]’s faux Nixies, appropriately dubbed “Fixies,” require just a touch of willing suspension of disbelief. We’ve never see Nixies with tiny jam jars as envelopes, so that’s probably the first giveaway. But looking past that, the innards of these fake displays do a pretty convincing job of imitating the texture of the real thing.

The numbers themselves are displayed on a 128×64 white OLED display using a Nixie-like True Type font. An orange acrylic filter in front of the display gives it that warm amber Nixie glow, with laser etchings mimicking both the fine hexagonal anode grid and the ghostly cathodes of the non-illuminated numerals. The tubes looked convincing enough that a clock was in order, and after sorting through an I2C bottleneck with the help of a multiplexer, [Derek] had a pretty decent faux-Nixie clock, complete with a solenoid-actuated mechanical gong. The double-digit display for the seconds will no doubt cause some consternation among Nixie purists, but that’s probably part of the fun.

Of course, just because Nixies aren’t being mass-produced today doesn’t mean you can’t get new ones. You just have to be willing to pay for them, and [Dalibor Farný] will gladly set you up with his handmade artisanal Nixies, or even a clock kit using them.

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Multimeter Display Perked Up With Nixies, LEDs, And Neon Tubes

Just because something is newer than something else doesn’t automatically make it better. Of course the opposite is also true, but when it comes to displays on bench multimeters, a fancy LCD display is no guarantee of legibility. Take the Hewlett Packard HP 3478A multimeter; the stock transflective display with its 14-segment characters is so hard to read that people usually have to add a backlight to use it.

That wasn’t good enough for [cyclotronboy], though, who chose to completely replace the stock 3478A display with Nixie tubes. He noticed that with a little modification, six IN-17 tubes just fit in the window vacated by the LCD. He sniffed out the serial data stream going to the display with a collection of XOR gates and flip-flops, which let him write the code for a PIC18F4550. The finished display adds a trio of rectangular LEDs for the + and – indicators, and an HDLO-1414 four-character alphanumeric display to indicate units and the like. And the decimal points? Tiny neon bulbs. It already looks miles better than the stock display, and with the addition of a red filter, it should look even better.

If you’re stuck with a lame LCD multimeter but Nixies don’t quite do it for you, worry not – an LED conversion is possible too.

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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Tiny Cube Hosts A Hearty Tube

Tiny PCBAs and glowy VFD tubes are like catnip to a Hackaday writer, so when we saw [hamster]’s TubeCube tube segment driver we had to dig in to learn more. We won’t bury the lede here; let’s enjoy a video of glowing tubes before we go further:

The TubeCube is built to fit the MiniBadge badge addon standard, which is primarily used to host modules on the SAINTCON conference badge. A single TubeCube hosts a VFD tube, hardware to provide a 70 V supply, and a microcontroller for communication and control. Each TubeCube is designed to accept ASCII characters via UART to display on it’s display, but they can also be chained together for even more excitement. We’re not sure how [hamster] would be able to physically wear the beast in the video above, but if he can find a way, they all work together. If you’re interested in seeing the dead simple UART communication scheme take a look at this file.

We think it’s also worth pointing about the high voltage supply. To the software or mechanically minded among us it’s easy to get trapped thinking about switching power supplies as a magical construct which can only be built using all-in-one control ICs. But [hamster]’s supply is a great reminder that a switching supply, even a high voltage one, isn’t as complex as all that. His design (which he says was cribbed from Adafruit’s lovely Ice Tube Clock) is essentially composed of the standard primitives. A big low voltage capacitor C1 to source the burst of energy which will be boosted, the necessary inductor/high voltage cap C2 which ends up at the target voltage, and a smoothing cap C3 to make the output a little nicer. It’s controlled by the microcontroller toggling Q1 to control the current flow through L1. The side effect is that by controlling the PWM frequency [hamster] can vary the brightness of the tubes.

Right now it looks like the repository has a schematic and sources, which should be enough to build a small tube driver of your own. If you can’t get enough TubeCubes, there’s one more video (of a single module) after the break.

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Nixie Clock Failure Analysis, [Dalibor Farný] Style

We’ve become sadly accustomed to consumer devices that seem to give up the ghost right after the warranty period expires. And even when we get “lucky” and the device fails while it’s still covered, chances are that there will be no attempt to repair it; the unit will be replaced with a new one, and the failed one will get pitched in the e-waste bin.

Not every manufacturer takes this approach, however. When premium quality is the keystone of your brand, you need to take field failures seriously. [Dalibor Farný], maker of high-end Nixie tubes and the sleek, sophisticated clocks they plug into, realizes this, and a new video goes into depth about the process he uses to diagnose issues and prevent them in the future.

One clock with a digit stuck off was traced to via failure by barrel fatigue, or the board material cracking inside the via hole and breaking the plated-through copper. This prompted a board redesign to increase the diameter of all the vias, eliminating that failure mode. Another clock had a digit stuck on, which ended up being a short to ground caused by pin misalignment; when the tube was plugged in, the pins slipped and scraped some solder off the socket and onto the ground plane of the board. That resulted in another redesign that not only fixed the problem by eliminating the ground plane on the upper side of the board, but also improved the aesthetics of the board dramatically.

As with all things [Dalibor], the video is a feast for the eyes with the warm orange glow in the polished glass and chrome tubes contrasting with the bead-blasted aluminum chassis. If you haven’t watched the “making of” video yet, you’ve got to check that out too.

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Think IN18s Are Cool? Get A Load Of This Must-Have Custom Nixie Tube

Us: “I’ll take Retro style displays we absolutely have to have for $200, Alex.”

Trebek: “This nixie tube is unlike any conventional tube you’ve seen before, handbuilt and NOT numbers or letters.”

Us: “What is FriendlyWire’s new logo tube?”

Trebek: “Heck yeah.”

Nixie tubes are the vacuum technology that manages to do far less than a graphic LCD while looking about a million times cooler. Generally speaking, these tubes are no longer manufactured, and the old stock you can get your hands on usually contain a set of filaments shaped like numbers. But @FriendlyWire’s tweet of this Nixie tube by [Dalibor Farny] breaks both of those rules. This handmade tube isn’t just a numerical display or a colon display (the punctuation mark, get your head out of the gutter). It’s a custom logo, and it’s beautiful.

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Hackaday Links: September 15, 2019

It’s probably one of the first lessons learned by new drivers: if you see a big, red fire truck parked by the side of the road, don’t run into it. Such a lesson appears not to have been in the Tesla Autopilot’s driver education curriculum, though – a Tesla Model S managed to ram into the rear of a fire truck parked at the scene of an accident on a southern California freeway. Crash analysis reveals that the Tesla was on Autopilot and following another vehicle; the driver of the lead vehicle noticed the obstruction and changed lanes. Apparently the Tesla reacted to that by speeding up, but failed to notice the stationary fire truck. One would think that the person driving the car would have stepped in to control the vehicle, but alas. Aside from beating up on Tesla, whose AutoPilot feature seems intent on keeping the market for batteries from junked vehicles fully stocked, this just points out how far engineers have to go before self-driving vehicles are as safe as even the worst human drivers.

The tech press is abuzz today with stories about potential union-busting at Kickstarter. Back in March, Kickstarter employees announced their intent to organize under the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU). On Thursday, two of the union organizers were fired. Clarissa Redwine, who recently hosted a Hack Chat, was one of those released; both she and Taylor Moore are protesting their terminations as an illegal attempt to intimidate Kickstarter employees and keep them from voting for the union. For their part, Kickstarter management says that both employees and two more were released as a result of documented performance issues during the normal review cycle, and that fourteen employees who are in favor of the union were given raises during this cycle, with three of them having been promoted. There will no doubt be plenty more news about this to come.

Would you pay $900 for a Nixie clock? We wouldn’t, but if you choose to buy into Millclock’s high-end timepiece, it may help soften the blow if you think about it being an investment in the future of Nixie tubes. You see, Millclock isn’t just putting together an overpriced clock that uses surplus Russian Nixies – they’re actually making brand new tubes. Techmoan recently reviewed the new clock and learned that the ZIN18 tubes are not coming from Czech Republic-based Dalibor Farný, but rather are being manufactured in-house. That’s exciting news for Nixie builders everywhere; while Dalibor’s tubes are high-quality products, it can’t hurt to have a little competition in the market. Nixies as a growth industry in 2019 – who’da thunk it?

We ran across an interesting project on Hackaday.io the other day, one that qualifies as a true hack. How much house can you afford? A simple question, but the answer can be very difficult to arrive at with the certainty needed to sign papers that put you on the hook for the next 30 years. Mike Ferarra and his son decided to answer this question – in a circuit simulator? As it turns out, circuit simulators are great at solving the kinds of non-linear simultaneous equations needed to factor in principle, interest, insurance, taxes, wages, and a host of other inflows and outflows. Current sources represent money in, current sinks money paid out. Whatever is left is what you can afford. Is this how Kirchoff bought his house?

And finally, is your parts inventory a bit of a mystery? Nikhil Dabas decided that rather than trying to remember what he had and risk duplicating orders, he’d build an application to do it for him. Called WhatDidIBuy, it does exactly what you’d think; it scrapes the order history pages of sites like Adafruit, Digi-Key, and Mouser and compiles a list of your orders as CSV files. It’s only semi-automated, leaving the login process to the user, but something like this could save a ton of time. And it’s modular, so adding support for new suppliers is a simple as writing a new scraper. Forgot what you ordered from McMaster, eBay, or even Amazon? Now there’s an app for that.