Think digital readouts before LEDs and fluorescent displays. Nixie tubes are vacuum tubes filled with neon (a little mercury and argon, too) gas and individual filaments shaped into numbers. When an electrical charge was applied to a filament, the neon gas around the filament glows, making a number from 0 to 9 clearly visible. The name Nixie was derived from an abbreviation of Numeric Indicator eXperimental No. 1, or NIX 1. Nixie tubes were manufactured into the 1980s, but have since been surpassed by LEDs as the preferred form of digital readout. Nixie tubes languished in storage since then, until a few enterprising individuals saw a new use for the vintage technology.
This Nixie clock was purchased already built. It uses IN-16 Nixie tubes and is housed in a mahogany wood base. The end result is a fashionable piece of retro-looking technology that’s sure to catch the eye of many a house guest. The soft amber glow is mesmerizing, and if that wasn’t enough, the clock has a built in cycling function to rapidly cycle each number in each tube at the top of each minute. This rapid display of all numbers is helpful in preserving the life of the tubes and quite entertaining to watch. The clock looks right at home sitting next to my home-built crystal radio sets.
You can build your own Nixie clock too. I got this kit off of ebay and it includes a machined wood base for housing the components once assembled. The kit includes all the necessary electrical components, breadboard and IN-8-2 Nixie tubes. The kit comes with complete instructions and a CD full of assembly photos. Most available clock kits use Russian built Nixie tubes, typically manufactured in the 1970-80s time period. To assemble such a kit, you’ll need a good soldering iron with a fine point since some of the parts and solder points are very small. The photo on the right is my Weller WESD51 Digital Soldering Station. The iron itself is a thin pencil unit for easy handling and is attached to the power supply base with a digital display that allows precise temperature control. Once the temperature is dialed in, the display switches over to display the actual temperature of the tip. The tip heats up very rapidly to operating temperature.
This is another clock I purchased off of ebay. This clock uses large IN-18 Nixie tubes that are fairly expensive. This clock came with the assembled circuitry, but did not include the tubes or a case. The tubes were purchased separately and I hope to be making my own custom case for it. The closeup of the Nixie tube illustrates how the numbers are formed with the individual filaments.
OK, so I finally got around to building my first Nixie clock from a kit. This is a single tube Nixie clock (in case that wasn’t obvious). Check out my full writeup.
This is a short video of the Nixie clock in operation and going through it’s cycling maneuver:
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