The Seductive Steampunk Look of Nixie Tube Displays!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Who could ever mistake the seductively bright orange display of a Nixie tube, right?

The 1960's-70's was the period of greatest popularity of Nixie tubes as a mean to display information without having to electrically heat a filament such as in the case of cathode ray tube (CRT) displays and light-emitting diode (LED) displays. The confusion between CRTs and Nixie tubes comes from the fact that they both look a whole lot the same. However, the cathode element inside a Nixie tube does not heat up. The Nixie tube works more like a neon lamp with metal cathode elements inside it. When the neon gas inside a Nixie tube is excited (plasma) and the metal cathode element is energized, the reaction causes the peculiar orange glow to appear very near to the metal cathode element. Believe it or not, the actual cathode element itself doesn't produce the glow.
So was the popularity of Nixie tubes that many 1960's/70's TV shows would feature one. One of the most popular 1970's TV show - the Six Million Dollar Man - featured a Nixie display counter in the opening intro sequence of the show. Many people probably didn't notice the Nixie display but if you skip towards the end-part of the intro that shows a fast counting digital display while he's running on the treadmill machine, that's the one (I'll add the video intro of the Six Million Dollar Man below)

Nixie tubes were used mostly as digital displays in early scientific equipment and instruments, and many of these old instruments have been turned into cool modern gadgets that resemble technology of the wild west or the Victorian era! By the way, if you are wondering where the name Nixie comes from, it comes from NIX1 (for Numeric Indicator eXperimental #1).

Below are some cool gadgets that used Nixie tube displays:

Nixie Tube Calculator
Calculators with Nixie tube displays such as the Denon Nixie Calculator had a very short-lived hype due to LED displays taking over the calculator market in around 1973/1974 (only three years after Nixie tube calculators first came out). Nixie tube calculators used the B5870 Nixie tube, which was designed originally for use in Nixie tube calculator displays in 1970. One of the most popular Nixie tube calculators was the Olympia CD401 Nixie Calculator, which had a rare percentage Nixie symbol most nixie tube calculators didn't have at the time.

Nixie Tube Tuner
Hi-Fi receivers such as the SAE Mark VI digital tuner were FM-only tuners with analog tuning knobs and mechanical tuning capacitors, but had the digital frequency display made with Nixie tubes. There was also the sci-fi looking Scott T33S digital tuner, which had perforated cards acting as memory presets that you had to perforate yourself with the Scott-supplied perforate! The Revox A720 was another popular choice at the time as it was a digital FM Tuner pre-amplifier with beautiful Nixie tubes.

Nixie Tube Watch
The nixie tube watch is definitely in fashion now, ever since the inventor of the Apple 1 personal computer -Steve Wozniak- wore one at TEDMED in 2009. Cathode Corner and the Kopriso Nixie are two companies who make Nixie tube watches. Kopriso also makes a Nixie watch that is solar-powered. The Nixie watch Steve Wozniak wears has the old style round crystal window. The beauty about the Nixie watch is its simplistic look and cool layout exposing the electronic workings of the watch, which include an CR2 lithium battery as well as the two Nixie tubes themselves. Inside of each Nixie tube, you find a wire-mesh anode and cathodes shaped like numerals (0 to 9). When the cathodes are energized they omit an orange glow discharge.

Nixie Tube Voltmeter/Multimeter
I am a big fan of classic technology from the industrial age and the Nixie tube voltmeter/multi-meter is yet another cool piece of steampunk-looking technology. One great example of these is the Fluke 8100A Nixie tube multimeter. And just like all Nixie tube technology of the day, they didn't use an Arduino. These voltmeters with Nixie tubes were driven from TTL logic, instead of the microcontroller technology that we use today.

Nixie Tube Frequency Counter
One of the first times I remember seeing a Nixie tube frequency counter was in the movie Futureworld which came out in 1976. Nixie tube frequency counters are almost 50 years old now and pretty much obsolete, though you can still find them around at flea markets or boot fair for as little as $30. You can even find Nixie tube frequency counters on eBay. It's quite amazing actually how the Nixie tubes in the frequency counters do not loose contrast. No wonder Nixie tubes were one of the most popular methods for displaying information.HP 5321B frequency counter with Nixie tubes. 

Nixie Tube Pinball
I've come across unusual modifications for a pinball machine display, and one of the coolest I've seen is Nixie tubes installed in an arcade pinball machine display.The enthusiast behind this particular Nixie tube pinball display project used a Bally Star Trek table from 1978 “mirrored” and re-worked into a Star Trek Mirror Universe pinball table with 7 digit Nixie Tube Displays which he reversed engineered by custom-making an Arduino compatible Audio tester to verify the Audio card design of the original. The table art, backglass and plastics had to be also custom-made, while the physical rollover switches were replaced with magnetic eddy sensors to sense the ball. The original Bally Transformer was replaced with an ATX power supply.

Here is the intro scene to the Six Million Dollar Man show I was telling you about. Watch for the digital counter counting down from 59 while he's running on the treadmill machine.

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