The elegance of Power over Ethernet (PoE) is that you can provide network connectivity and power over a single cable. Unfortunately not nearly enough hardware seems to support this capability, forcing intrepid hackers to take matters into their own hands. The latest in this line of single-cable creations is this beautiful Vacuum Fluorescent Display (VFD) clock from [Glen Akins].
One of the key advantages VFDs have over their Nixie predecessors is greatly reduced energy consumption, and after [Glen] ran the numbers, he saw that a display using six VFD tubes could easily be powered with standard PoE hardware. With this information, he started designing the PCB around the early 1990s era IV-12 tube, which has the advantage of being socketed so he could easily remove them later if necessary.
[Glen] first had to create a schematic and PCB footprint for the IV-12 tube that he could import into Eagle, which he was kind enough to share should anyone else be working with these particular tubes down the line. After a test of the newly designed socket was successful, he moved onto the rest of the electronics.
The clock is powered by a Microchip PIC18F67J60, which connects to the Ethernet network and pulls the current time down from NTP. After seeing so many clocks use an ESP to connect to the Internet over WiFi, there’s something refreshing about seeing a wired version. The tube segments are driven by a HV5812, also Microchip branded. Lastly, [Glen] used a number of DC/DC converters to generate the 1.5 V, 3.3 V, 5 V, and 25 V necessary to drive all the electronics and VFDs.
As [sjm4306] says, “You can never have too many clocks based on obsolete display technologies.” We couldn’t agree more, and this single-tube VFD clock is one we haven’t seen before.
The vacuum-fluorescent display that [sjm4306] chose to base this clock on is the IV-21, an eight-digit seven-segment display on the smallish side. The tube is Russian surplus from the ’80s, as all such displays seem to be. The main PCB sports an ATMega328, a boost converter to provide the high voltage needed to run the VFD, a real-time clock, and the driver chip for the tube segments. The tube itself lives on a clever riser card that elevates the display above the main PCB and puts it at the proper angle for reading. [sjm4306] designed it to be modular; should you want to user a bigger VFD you need only make a new riser PCB. Figuring out the proper way to space the through-holes in Eagle proved elusive, but he hacked a solution using a spreadsheet to handle the trigonometry and spit out Cartesian coordinates for each hole. Pretty neat. The video below shows the clock assembly and a test.
The clock employs an IV-27M vacuum fluorescent display, manufactured in the now-defunct USSR. Featuring 13 seven-segment digits, it’s got that charming blue glow that you just don’t get with other technologies. A MAX6921AWI chip is used to drive the VFD, and an Arduino Mega is the brains of the operation. There’s also an HD44780-compliant LCD that can display further alphanumeric information, and a 4×4 keypad for controlling the device.
The best part of the build though is the enclosure. The VFD is encased in a glass tube, and supported at either end by 90-degree copper pipe couplers. These hold the VFD aloft, and also act as a conduit for the wires coming off each end of the tube. It’s all built on top of a wooden base that holds the rest of the electronics.
(Pedantic Editor’s Note: VFDs actually run a little warm.)
At least that’s the reasoning [Scott M. Baker] applied to his Prusa upgrade. We have to admit to a certain affection for all retro displays relying on the excitation of gasses. Nixies, Numitrons, and even the lowly neon pilot light all have a certain charm of their own, but by our reckoning the VFD leads the pack. [Scott] chose a high-quality Noritake 4×20 alphanumeric display module for his upgrade, thriftily watching eBay for bargains rather than buying from the big distributors. The module has a pinout that’s compatible with the OEM LCD, so replacing it is a snap. [Scott] simplified that further by buying a replacement Prusa control board with no display, to which he soldered the Noritake module. Back inside the bezel, the VFD is bright and crisp. We like the blue-green digits against the Prusa red-orange, but [Scott] has an orange filter on order for the VFD to make everything monochromatic. That’ll be a nice look too.
A completely none functional hack, to be sure, but sometimes aesthetics need attention too. And it’s possible that a display switch would help the colorblind use the UI better, like this oscilloscope mod aims to do.
As [tonyp7] freely admits, this is a pet project that’s just for the fun of it, made possible by the flood of surplus parts on the market these days. The VFD tubes are IV-25s, Russian tubes that can be had by the fistful for a song from the usual sources. The seven small elements in the tube were intended to make bar graph displays like VU meters, but [tonyp7] ganged up twelve side by side to make 84-pixel displays. The custom driver board for each matrix needs three of the old SN75518 driver chips, in 40-pin DIPs no less. A 3D-printed bracket holds the tubes and the board for each module; it looks like a clock is the goal, with six modules ganged together. But the marquee display shown below is great too, and we look forward to seeing the finished project.
Reddit user [InThePartsBin] found some VFDs (Vacuum Fluorescent Displays) on an old PCB on eBay. The Russian boards date from 1987 and have a bunch of through-hole resistors, transistors and a some mystery ICs, plastic wraps around the legs and the top of the tube is held steady by a rubber grommet (the tip itself goes through a hole in a board mounted perpendicular to the main board.) Being the curious kind of person we like, and seeing the boards weren’t too expensive, he bought some in order to play around with to see if he could bring them back to life.
After getting the VFDs lighting up and figuring out the circuitry on the back, [InThePartsBin] decided that a clock was the best thing to build out of it. It was decided that a specialized VFD driver chip was the easiest way to make the thing work, so a MAX6934 was ordered. To give the clock some brains, an ATmega328 was recruited and to keep time, [InThePartsBin] had some DS3231 real-time clock modules left over from a previous project, so they were recruited as well. A daughterboard was designed to sit on the back of the vintage board and hold the ‘328 and the VFD driver chip.
Once [InThePartsBin] soldered on the components it was time to fire it up and send 1’s to the driver to turn on all the segments on all the tubes. Success! The only thing that [InThePartsBin] has left to do is write the code for the clock, but all the segments and tubes are controllable now, so the hardware part is done. There are other VFD clock projects on the site: Check out this one, or this one, and bask in the beautiful steel-blue glow.
Sometimes it seems like eBay is the world’s junk bin, and we mean that in the best possible way. The variety of parts available for a pittance boggles the mind sometimes, especially when the parts were once ordered in massive quantities but have since gone obsolete. The urge to order parts like these in bulk can be overwhelming, and sooner or later, you’ll find yourself with a fistful of old stuff but no idea how to put it to use.
Case in point: the box of Russian surplus seven-segment vacuum fluorescent displays (VFDs) that [w_k_fay] had to figure out how to use. The result is a tutorial on quick and dirty VFD drivers that looks pretty handy. [w_k_fay] takes pains to point out that these are practical tips for putting surplus VFDs to work, as opposed to engineered solutions. He starts with tips on characterizing your surplus tubes in case you don’t have a pinout. A 1.5 V battery will suffice for the hot cathode, while a 9 V battery will turn on the segments. The VFDs can be treated much like a common cathode LED display, and a simple circuit driving the tube with a 4026 decade counter can be seen below. He also covers the challenges of driving VFDs from microcontrollers, and promises a full build of a frequency counter wherein the mysteries of multiplexing will be addressed.