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”.
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In what can only be described as a work of art, [suedbunker] has created a clock under a glass dome. Sporting Nixie tubes, a DS3223, BCD encoders, and MPSA43 transistors driven by an MCP23008 I/O expander it is truly a sight to behold. [suedbunker] has previously created the Circus Clock, a similar clock that celebrated a diversity of ways of displaying the time.
The dome clock represents a continuation of that idea. Reading the clock requires looking at the horizontal and vertical numbers separately. The hours are on the horizontal and minutes are on the vertical. Monday to Sunday is represented in the neon bulbs on the back. The power supply at the bottom provides a wide range of voltages including 5 V, 12 V, 24 V, 45 V, 90 V, 150 V, and -270 V for all the various types of lights. For safety, an optocoupler is used on the -270 volts to drive the clear seven-segment display.
An Arduino Nano controls the whole clock by communicating with the DS3232 real-time clock module and the port expanders via I2C. The soldering and wiring work, in particular, is tidy and beautiful. We look forward to future clocks by [suedbunker] and his wife.
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.
The project consists of an 8×48 matrix display constructed out of INS-1 (ИНC-1) tubes. These tiny neon tubes are 6.5 mm in diameter, showing a bright orange dot of light when powered up. Requiring just 100 V and 0.5 mA to light, they’re a touch easier to drive than the famous Nixie.
[Pierre] decided to go all out, wishing to replicate the capabilities of smart LEDs like the WS2812. These contain a microcontroller built in to each LED, so [Pierre] would have to do the same. Each of the 384 neon tubes got its own bespoke PCB, containing a PIC16F15313 microcontroller, step up voltage circuitry, and a 6-pin connector. (Whoah!) When each bulb was soldered to its PCB, they were then plugged into a backplane. An ESP32 was then employed to drive the display as a whole.
Creating a display in this fashion takes a huge amount of work, with most of it being soldering the 384 individual bulb PCBs containing 11 components each. We have a lot of respect for [Pierre]’s work ethic to get this done during lockdown, and the final result is a gloriously retro neon matrix display. We’ve featured other neon matrixes recently, too. Video after the break. Continue reading “384 Neon Bulbs Become Attractive Display”→
We’ll be honest right up front: there’s nothing new in [David Cambridge]’s brushless motor and controller build. If you’re looking for earth-shattering innovation, you’d best look elsewhere. But if you enjoy an aimless use of just about every technique and material in the hacker’s toolkit employed with extreme craftsmanship, then this might be for you. And Nixies — he’s got Nixies in there too.
[David]’s build started out as a personal exploration of brushless motors and how they work. Some 3D-printed parts, a single coil of wire, and a magnetic reed switch resulted in a simple pulse motor that performed surprisingly well. This morphed into a six-coil motor with Hall-effect sensors and a homebrew controller. This is where [David] pulled out all the stops on tools — a lathe, a plasma cutter, a welder, a milling machine, and a nice selection of woodworking tools went into making parts for the final motor as well as an enclosure for the project. And because he hadn’t checked off quite all the boxes yet, [David] decided to use the 3D-printed frame as a pattern for casting one from aluminum.
The finished motor, with a redesigned rotor to deal better with eddy currents, joined the wood and metal enclosure along with a Nixie tube tachometer and etched brass control plates. It’s a great look for a project that’s clearly a labor of self-edification and skill-building, and we love it. We’ve seen other BLDC demonstrators before, but few that look as good as this one does.
It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Sure, there are some who might simply sugarcoat blatant plagiarism with fancy quotes, but there are still cases that come from well-intended, genuine admiration. The Nixie tube with its ember-like glow is a component that definitely gets a lot of such admiration, and being a fond LED enthusiast, [tuenhidiy] saw a perfect opportunity to imitate them with a RGB LED Matrix and build a virtual Nixie clock from it.
What may sound like just displaying images of Nixie tubes on a LED matrix, is actually exactly that. Using the UTFT library and converter, [tuenhidiy] turned pictures of individually lit-up Nixie tube digits into arrays of 16bit RGB values, and shows the current time on an ESP32-controlled 64×64 matrix with them. Providing two different image sizes, you can either place two tubes next to each other, or in a 3×2 arrangement, and of course have plenty of flexibility for future extensions. In the demo video after the break, you can see the two options in action while displaying both the full time, and only the seconds.
Unfortunately, it’s always difficult to judge an LED project through the lens of a camera, especially when looking for the characteristic color of a Nixie tube, but we take [tuenhidiy]’s word that it resembles it a lot better in reality. On the other hand, the pixelated look certainly adds its own charm, so you might as well go completely overboard with the colors — something we’ve seen with a different LED-themed Nixie alternative a little while back.
[Fran Blanche] tears down this fascinating display in a video teardown, embedded below.
These displays can support up to 64 characters of the buyer’s choosing which is controlled by 6 bits, surprisingly only requiring 128 mW per bit to control; pretty power-light for its day and age. Aside from alphanumeric combinations the display also supported “color plates” which we found quite fascinating. The fully decked model would only cost you $1,206 US dollars per unit in today’s money or five rolls of toilet paper at latest street price. And that’s just one digit.
If you dig through the documents linked here, and watch her video you can get an idea of how this display works. There are six solenoids attached to rods at the rear of the device. A lamp shines through a lens onto the back of a plate assembly. Each plate is a strategically perforated grid. When the solenoids activate the selected plates tilt interfering with a stationary grid. This causes the light to be blocked in some regions only.
It seems clear why this never took off. Aligning these seems like a production nightmare compared to things like flip displays and Nixie tubes. Still, the characters have quite a lot of charm to them. We wouldn’t mind seeing a 3D printable/laser cut version of this display type. Get working!