How to Do Nixie (Clocks)
It all started when ‘Homo Sapiens Sapiens’ figured out how to draw simple pictures on the cave walls. Human race developed a need for displaying devices, contraptions that would give us the ability to display our creations and various data to the other members of our species. It turned out that cave walls had a practically useless refresh rate and they lacked portability.
Around 32,000 years later, when digital electronics reached a certain level of miniaturization, some clever cookie at Haydu Brothers Laboratories decided that it would be nice to make a few modifications to a standard vacuum tube. He filled it with cathodes that were shaped like numbers.
Then by applying voltage and current between a certain cathode and anode he was able to light up those numbers and make them glow. He called this thing the “Numeric Indicator Experimental No. 1” or “NIX I,” for short. A few similar devices came to life around the same time and they were grouped under the general term “cold cathode neon readout tubes.” However, people decided to call them “nixie tubes.”
Nixies were in use for about twenty years, and they were the first electronic component used to display numbers and other characters. In the 1970’s Vacuum fluorescent displays started to replace them. The last nixies were still in production in the early 1990’s, probably as replacement parts for old, still-functioning military equipment.
With the beginning of the new millennium nixies started gaining popularity. The geek factor in these cute little (and not so little) tubes is simply too huge to be overlooked. There is something so retro yet so familiar about them, and you can’t help but to feel warmth yourself when you see them light up and glow. The fact that they don’t actually heat up is easily overlooked.
Making a Nixie Tube Clock
Getting a nixie tube nowadays is a bit tricky. Ebay is probably your best bet. To create a clock you will need at least four of them, but six is better. You will also need circuitry to drive these six bulbs. If you are not skilled in handling a soldering iron then make sure you look for already assembled kits. If you know how to solder and you have built stuff before then you can easily assemble the nixie clock by yourself.
Check prices before you decide on what you want to build. They vary a lot depending on where you shop and which nixie tubes you decide to buy. They come in various shapes and sizes, from tiny little button-shaped ones, through bigger two-inch monster nixie tubes, to the gigantic eight-inch tubes. Those are, however, extremely rare and will cost up to a few hundred dollars per piece.
Check tube condition whether buying in person or inquiring specifically when purchasing online. See if they are new tubes and never used from old stock, or if they are already used tubes that were salvaged from some old device.
Circuitry: There are many different types, from simple clocks with no seconds to more complicated clocks that can show the date, know about daylight savings time, and can be connected to a GPS receiver to set the time automatically.
No matter if you build your own clock or if you buy a pre-built kit, the satisfaction and the joy when you plug it in for the first time and the nixies flicker for a bit before they stabilize is immense. You will be staring at that clock for hours, just looking at the changing numbers, forgetting about the world around you. I know I did.
All photos thanks to various artists (click picture for link to their main page) and Nixie Tube history sourced from beloved Wikipedia