Ryan Brooks' 6502 Nixie Clock.

Ryan Brooks made this fantastic clock with large Nixie tubes.

What's a nixie tube? Wikipedia explains:

"A nixie tube is an electronic device for displaying numerals or other information, in the form of a glass tube containing multiple cathodes and a wire mesh anode, filled with neon and often a little mercury and/or argon (a Penning mixture, for lower striking voltage) at a small fraction of atmospheric pressure. Although it resembles a vacuum tube in appearance, its operation does not depend on heating of a cathode to cause it to emit electrons (the thermionic effect). It is therefore called a cold-cathode tube, a form of gas filled tube, a variant of neon lamp."


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I worked with Nixie tubes during my college years (1969-1974) and they are easy to use. They are quite old and sturdy, and were first developed by Burroughs in the 1960s for the computer, calculator, and measuring instruments as a pure electronic alternative to the mechanical (clockwheels and paddles) and electrical (labeled lamps) inmdicators. They take up much less space that their counterparts, and are very visible during daylight. They are also had more useful life than indicator lamps, because they glow (radianting a reddish orange light along the selected cathode) instead of burning as a lamp. To see them more clearly, especially in daylight, a red filter would cover the tubes, and therefore improve the contrast.

Some old-timers would easily remember seeing them in some of the sci-fi movies, and if you ever see one now, you will easily remember seeing it before. The only difficulty was the high DC voltage needed to cause the glow, and that some of the numbers were shadowed by the filaments of the unlit numbers. You could make two or more cathodes glow at the same time, but the current rating was more than some high voltage supplies could source, and it made the numbers unreadable.

The seven-segment LED display was the first device to displace the Nixie tube, saving space and power. A flat version of the Nixie tube, using a green flourescent display, came out for calculators and some digital clocks (some are still around). Later the LCD display displaved all of the previous, but the LED is making a comeback because it is a light emitter just like the Nixie tube was, and newer versions are more enery efficient and have more color (instead of the classic red).

I believe that the U.S. stopped production of glass tubes in the early 1970's because of the mass shift to solid-state, so Russia and its old satellite nations (a.k.a Soviet Union) are the only sources left. I mat still have one Nixie tube at home, but I doubt I will be building a digital clock with it (Heathkit did many years ago).

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