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Lightsaber in a Bottle: The Art and Science of Nixie Tubes

by Jonathan Ho on May 8, 2017

Developed by a small vacuum tube maker Haydu Brothers Laboratories, Burroughs Corporation acquired the company and then launched Nixie Tubes in 1955. As Arthur C. Clarke would say, any sufficiently advanced technology cannot be distinguished from magic and in the 50s, the Nixie, though a abbreviation of “Numeric Indicator eXperimental No. 1” or “NIX I” was rumoured to be named for “Pixie” a creature of mystery and magic.

Although resembling a vacuum tube, the art and science of Nixie tubes completely differs from VFD or Vacuum Florescent Displays; its operation does not depend on thermionic emission of electrons from a heated cathode. It operates off the principle of a gas-filled tube (in contrast of a vacuum) called a cold-cathode tube, similar to neon lamp technology. Though the Burroughs Corporation technically owns the Nixie trademark, its popularity amongst the geek community rendered all Nixie-like displays like Digitron, Inditron and Numicator as “Nixie tubes” – in short, Burroughs lost their trademark when Nixie entered the vernacular as a generic name. That said, it would have been a mouthful to refer to Nixie tubes as cold cathode neon readout tubes anyway.

Lightsaber in a Bottle: The Art and Science of Nixie Tubes

The ubiquitous glow of the Nixie Tube is akin to a lightsaber in a bottle – a glass tube containing a wire-mesh anode and multiple cathodes; Applying power to one cathode surrounds it with an orange glow discharge which then takes the shape of what ever numerals or other symbols have been formed with the mesh. The tube is filled with a gas at low pressure, usually mostly neon and often a little mercury or argon, in a Penning mixture.

A Vacuum Florescent Display or VFD, not to be mistaken with a Nixie watch like the one displayed below. J. M. De Cristofaro used an ex-Soviet IVL2-7/5 VFD tube as the core for his Cyberpunk Wristwatch, which adds steampunk notes in the form of a brass “roll cage” around the tube.

A Nixie tube watch as envisioned by Ryaznov Design

Vacuum fluorescent displays from the same era use completely different technology—they have a heated cathode together with a control grid and shaped phosphor anodes; Nixies have no heater or control grid, typically a single anode, and shaped bare metal cathodes.

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As a watch or clock tech, the Nixie tube is popular for its steampunk nature, more so than a mechanical watch purely because it blends a touch of technology with raw industrialism.

The Nixie Machine II by Frank Buchwald at the M.A.D.Gallery

For the 5th anniversary of the M.A.D.Gallery, German sculptor Frank Buchwald introduced the new Nixie Machine II clock created in collaboration with engineer Dalibor Farny. Like the old-school Nixie tubes, the Nixie Machine II also features glass tubes filled with a low-pressure neon-based gas, wire-mesh anodes and layered cathodes shaped like numerals; a separate cathode for numerals 0 to 9.

A distinctive orange glow discharge surrounds each cathode when power is applied. Assembled in multi-digit arrays by connecting electronic circuitry to several tubes, Nixie tubes were often used for computers, clocks, and frequency counters, though these were eventually supplanted by more practicable, less costly – though arguably less charming – displays such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

An evolution of the original Nixie Machine, the new Nixie Machine II and its steampunk mechano-insect-like limbs are hand crafted to every detail and then topped off with six Nixie tubes produced by Dalibor Farny. Measuring 1.2 meters, the steel and brass construction of Buchwald’s Nixie tube table clock are a vivid techno-organic artwork with flexible, tentacle-like tubing “nourishing” the Nixie tubes with energy and information is at the core of the composition. An orange glow surrounding the visible inner structure of the Nixie tubes provides the piece with both an industrial look and a bio-animated character.

Made by hand in a Czech workshop, each tube features a steampunk inner structure with honeycomb grids and tungsten wires smelted with glass lighting up filigree digits encapsulated in blown glass cylinders, the product of years of experimentation of the vintage Nixie tube Z568M.

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The new Nixie Machine II may look techno-mechanical but its heart is completely modern – it’s a WiFi enabled clock which keeps connected to the “internet of things” for precision time-keeping, thus, you might never need to set the clock manually. All settings and special features – including scroll effects, day/night modes, digit light dimming, time zone settings and more – can be intuitively programmed online. The clock can also operate offline, regulated by a knob on the back.

Each lamp is made using more than 200 individual components in an intricate combination where burnished blackened steel throws the rich patina of brass and the warm, yellow glow of visible light filaments into pleasurable contrast and visuals.

As a phenomenon, Nixie tubes are a technology that are fairly versatile and more importantly, visually distinctive. On Etsy, a maker of Nixie Chessboards plys his trade of handcrafted Nixie chess sets. Each taking 8 to 10 weeks to build, Lasermad salvages vintage nixie tubes from the world’s limited supply to painstakingly make each of the pieces from pawns to rooks and then he prepares the chessboard with wireless induction coils which tend provide power to the game pieces as they move around the board. If you’re wondering why Lasermad could just individually power each chess piece with a button cell, it’s because the Nixie tube itself provides too much impedance and resistance for a button cell to power the display.

Time Flies with Nixie Tubes – A Literal Product

From chessboards, Tony “Lasermad” Adams has now moved on to a levitating Nixie clock utilising the same Soviet era new old stock Nixie tubes. Hovering magically on opposing beds of strong rare earth magnets, the retro-futurist timepiece displays time and date whilst being balanced by delicate stabilising electromagnets while being power coupled by an air transformer built with copper coils in the base and display.

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Four small LEDs indicate how well suspended the display is, a light or two off means that the Nixie clock is probably off-balance requiring you to make adjustments – either way, it’s a more user friendly way of not having your floating magical artpiece crash unceremoniously to the floor as you might have discovered with other levitating artpieces of similar construction.

You can grab the Nixie Chessboard and Levitating Clock at Lasermad’s Etsy store. While the Nixie Machine II is available at MAD Gallery for US$30,000.




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