Nixie Tubes – Old But Awesome Technology

Have you ever seen the trademark amber glow of the Nixie Tube?

Nixie tubes have made a bit of a comeback by Makers and tinkerers of today’s tech — an old-school look with old-school innards using pretty simple technology to create some pretty spectacular results.  Nixie tube clocks, signs, and even Nixie tube wrist watches, as worn by Steve Wozniak:

For those of you nerds out there like me who HAVE TO KNOW MORE ABOUT WOZ’S NIXIE WATCH RIGHT NOW OMFG OCD LALALALAAAAAA, please check this video out!  Here’s Woz talking about scaring the crap out of his seatmates on flights as he changes the time zone!  The maker of this watch is Cathode Corner, and they are pretty freaking cool!

Ok, ok, enough about the watch.  Now as I was saying…  NIXIE TUBES!  In short, a Nixie tube is a little illuminator/signal tube that looks a lot like a vacuum tube but is actually a cold cathode discharge device with either digits in it or symbols.  If you’ve ever seen the very popular hacker device called a Nixie Clock (or Nixie Tube Clock), then you know what a Nixie tube looks like.  They’re pretty unmistakeable – a lot of vintage Russian gear from the 1960’s and 1970’s are filled with Nixie tubes for some reason.  They make such a beautiful display, it’s essentially a kind of neon discharge tube, but not really:

A side note – this entire article came from me wanting to know the origin of the term “Nixie” in reference to these tubes.  Nixie comes from a name that the draftsman working on the tube signal wrote down on his drafting plate – “NIX1,” for Numeric Indicator eXperimental #1.  As you can imagine, the nickname “Nixie” stuck, and the guy who owned the patent also patented the name “Nixie.”  WHY do I love this kind of knowledge?!

Nixie tubes are pretty simple technology that relies on cold cathode glow discharge technology, which is actually pretty cool!  I’m sure you’ve heard of cathodes (the place where electrons come from) and anodes (the place where electrons flow to) – this is extremely important in understanding how these Nixie tubes work.  The difference between a “hot” cathode and a “cold” cathode is basically in how the electrons move from the cathode to the anode.  Instead of using heat to release electrons from something in a vacuum (like in fluorescent tubes and HID lamps), in the case of cold cathode devices the electrons are released by manipulating the electrical field in a vacuum.  Now before this gets really crazy into field emissions and the Zener Effect (not to mention the Aston Dark Space and Positive Columns and Faraday’s Space and whatnot), it’s probably a good idea to simplify this a bit for brevity’s sake.

So, are you familiar with the way that tungsten-halogen lamps work?  Basically, the gas inside them is from the halogen group (I can still remember the mnemonic – ‘F, Cl, Br, I!!‘) at a high pressure vacuum, and the filaments are tungsten.  Gasses from the halogen group loves them some tungsten vapor fo sho, actually, which is why we use them together.  As the filament burns at incandescence, atoms of tungsten evaporate from the filament into gas (think of it as a metal gas because, well, it is) and they float around in this halogen family gas.  As the atoms of tungsten get near the considerably yet minutely cooler glass envelope of the lamp, they also cool down and are re-deposited on the envelope.  Consequently, this is why and how we are able to make T-H lamps last longer and put out higher amounts of light; the redepositing of the atoms back onto the filament helps lengthen its life by re-coating the filament with “fresh” atoms of tungsten.  This is called the T-H life cycle.

I didn’t explain the tungsten-halogen lamp because the Nixie and the T-H lamp are similar; I wanted to put a picture in your head about how atoms (and smaller subatomics) travel inside of a vacuum environment.  In a really simplified explanation of how the Nixie tubes work, look at this great image of a discombobulated Nixie lamp, courtesy of the awesome people at the Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories:

Nixie Tube

See the mesh?  That’s the anode, or the positively charged part.  The numbers themselves, each one in the stack there, is an individual cathode, or the negatively charged part.  Electrons and ions travel from the cathode to the anode (remember ACID and CCD to remember current flow – Anode Current Into Device and Cathode Current Departs).  Inside the Nixie tube, there is a gas – typically one of the Noble gasses group of elemental gasses – that exists in low pressure inside the tube.  When the anode and cathode are given a potential difference in charge, the gas atoms get all angry and split up into negatively charged electrons and positively charged ions.  The ions are attracted to the negative cathode, and the electrons are attracted of course to the positively charged anode.  As these ions go slamming into the cathode, something really interesting takes place — atoms of metal from the cathode are basically knocked out of the cathode in a process called sputtering.  This sputtering of the metal atoms is literally caused by these ions slamming into the cathode.  Imagine breaking a rack of billiard balls with a cue ball — make sense now?

Once the sputtered metal atoms are knocked loose and are flying around, there are also some electrons flying around, too.  The electrons don’t have enough speed or energy to do much with the metal atoms floating close to the cathode (the number itself), so this weird little dark space called the Aston Dark Space (aka the Cathode Dark Space) takes place close to the cathode.  It’s weird, but you can actually see it – look closely at this Crookes Dark Space Tube:

See the dark spaces right at the center?  There is a small round cathode at the middle of that tube, and the dark space occurs right around it.  The larger dark spaces on either side of the bright “ball” of light at the center of the Crookes tube is something else, called the Faraday Dark Space.  Here’s another example, this one a diagram:

What’s cool about this glow outside of the Cathode Dark Space is what happens to make the glow happen — the electrons gain some speed and energy as they travel towards the positively charged anode (the mesh cage in the case of the Nixie Tube), and at a point outside of the Aston (or Cathode) dark space, they have enough energy and speed to cause a strong collision with the metal atoms sputtered away from the cathode.  When this happens, *PRESTO* — we have the release of a photon which causes light!

I think these Nixie Tubes are quite awesome.  Some history on the Nixie Tube’s patent and development:

The early Nixie displays were made by a small vacuum tube manufacturer called Haydu Brothers Laboratories, and introduced in 1955 by Burroughs Corporation, who purchased Haydu and owned the name Nixie as a trademark.  […] Similar devices that functioned in the same way were patented in the 1930s, and the first mass-produced display tubes were introduced in 1954 by National Union Co. under the brand name Inditron. However, their construction was cruder, their average lifetime was shorter, and they failed to find many applications due to their complex periphery.

Burroughs even had another Haydu tube that could operate as a digital counter and directly drive a Nixie tube for display. This was called a “Trochotron”, in later form known as the “Beam-X Switch” counter tube; another name was “magnetron beam-switching tube”, referring to their similarity to a cavity magnetron. Trochotrons were used in the UNIVAC 1101 computer, as well as in clocks and frequency counters.

The first trochotrons were surrounded by a hollow cylindrical magnet, with poles at the ends. The field inside the magnet had essentially-parallel lines of force, parallel to the axis of the tube. It was a thermionic vacuum tube; inside were a central cathode, ten anodes, and ten “spade” electrodes. The magnetic field and voltages applied to the electrodes made the electrons form a thick sheet (as in a cavity magnetron) that went to only one anode. Applying a pulse with specified width and voltages to the spades made the sheet advance to the next anode, where it stayed until the next advance pulse. Count direction was not reversible. A later form of trochotron called a Beam-X Switch replaced the large, heavy external cylindrical magnet with ten small internal metal-alloy rod magnets which also served as electrodes.

I found a lot of really amazing resources on the Nixie tube.  I had to post some of it, this stuff is amazing, and there are a LOT of really big fans!

American Nixies from Sphere Research:

Russian Nixies from Sphere Research:

Thanks to Nature, Dribble, Wikipedia (ions), Wikipedia (electrostatic discharge), Wikipedia (field electron emission), TeslaTech, and Steve Wozniak for being awesome.  

The State of Electronics – Karl von Moller’s Documentary on the Electronics Industry

Have you all heard about this cool documentary that’s being made by Karl von Moller?  Karl’s making a “State of Electronics” documentary on the history and progress of the Electronics Industry in Australia.  Electronics is a wide industry – but I think what a lot of people forget is that semiconductors is a large part of that industry, and semiconductors is a very large portion of the modern industries of light.  Solar cells, light emitting diodes (which I think I like calling “leds” a lot lately) and other optoelectronic components and systems.

That kind of blows my mind for a minute there – after going to Photonics West in SanFran this last January, I realized how little I actually knew about life.

Check out the first teaser for the State of Electronics series first:

State of Electronics – Trailer from karl von moller on Vimeo.

then watch this newer one – “Roll Call – State of Electronics,” which has Dave Jones of the EEEV Blog! (I love this dude, I could only DREAM of being that huge of a brain!)

Roll Call – State of Electronics from karl von moller on Vimeo.

Fill up your brain! Be full of knowledge and less full of bulls**t! :)

Hand-Made Triodes!

I was kicking around my RSS feed this morning, and I came across a post from the blog Anvilx - check out this great video of triodes being manufactured by hand! The maker is Claude Paillardcheck out his website (translated into Englaise for all of you non-French reading mophos)!

Very cool!

(oh – a triode is a device that amplifies electronic signal, typically used in high end audio stuffs.  It’s way too cool not to post here though!)


Dave Jones Talks About Thermal Design for Electronics

I’ve talked a lot about Dave Jones from time to time on JimOnLight.com – Dave is in Sydney, Australia, and he is one of my favorite nerds.  Like, way up there, near Collin Cunningham.  Yeah.  Dave knows his stuff.  It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a lot of fun to listen to, which makes me watch his spot regularly!

Dave just did another segment of his Electronics Engineering Video Blog – this time on some basic theory on calculating for thermal heatsinks for electronic gear – like LEDs and other opto-semiconductors.  Really, just put this on and go about your work.  I guarantee you’re gonna learn something awesome over your lunch hour.

Dave, you rock.  Next time I’m in Sydney, I’m SO buying you a pint, mate.

Does This LED Middle Finger Count as Road Rage?

I get a metric ton of emails from LED manufacturing companies located all over the world.  You know the ones – if you’ve ever done a search on Google for “lighting” or entered your email address into a subscription list, you’ve probably gotten spammed with something like this:

Dear Sir:

It has been long time for communication with you.  at the beginning of 2010, we have launched some new led bulb and lightings.

You can visit our website to download our 2010 catalogue, [website address redacted]

If you want to download, please contact me to get the account to download the files.

[name redacted]
Dreamy Lighting Co., LTD

Normally these come with some kind of PDF full of blatant copies of good brands like Martin’s Mac 2000, along with LED striplights, wall washers, and other inexpensive LED lighting.  It’s been this way with manufacturers in this area for many years – when white LED manufacturing made its debut, companies bombarded the world with cheap quality and cost white LED products.  When CFLs got huge, same thing.

Sometimes the products (and English translations) are absolutely ridiculous, and sometimes it is overwhelmingly hilarious.  I just got one from a company (that I shall not name because they CONSTANTLY SPAM ME) that had a pretty funny product being advertised – an LED sign for the inside of your car that sends visual messages to the car behind you, up to and including the middle finger.  Meet the “CAR Emotion Light”:

What a phenomenally hilarious idea.  Note the middle finger  icon that you can display in gleaming red LED light for your already late for dinner angry road raging Hummer driver you just cut off.

Epic win.

Solar iPods? QUE?!

There is news out right now that Apple has filed for a patent on adding photovoltaic cells to their iPods.  That’s right.

I almost put this in the What? category, but I am staying strong that maybe it’s a possibility.  Can you imagine?  I mean, I have replaced the battery in every iPod that I have ever owned.  It’s not hard to do, and it’s certainly cheaper than buying a whole new iPod – who does that anyway?  Doesn’t the Apple Store gouge you for changing the battery, or do they just replace it?  That hardly seems resource efficient.

I wonder how long it’s gonna take to charge this little puppy – I can see myself forgetting my charger right before I have to do some programming or something where I need to really focus “because I figured I would just charge it in the sun.”

Interesting.  I say GO APPLE! on this one.

Check out the schematics, from CleanTechnica:

The skinny on the street is that this patent will cover basically all of their mobile devices, from Shuffles to iPhones.  Crazy.

A DIY Glass Block LED Display

I love do-it-yourself lighting – every time I read an article about someone who has wired up some LEDs in an interesting configuration with a homemade controller, I just get all giggly and stupid.  I’m always sketching diagrams and ideas for luminaires – I am hoping that I am able to take the Luminaire Design course here in the Spring so I can expunge some of these ideas from my melon.

I read an article at Make about Dave Vondle’s DIY LED display wall – Dave wired up a bunch of LED sources behind a glass block wall on his block in Chicago, on Logan Square.  Dave had to take it down, which is a shame, but he documented the project very well.  Great project, Dave!

Check out Dave’s very well documented project page at IDEO Labs, the video, and images below:

Glass Block LED Wall Display from IDEO Labs on Vimeo.

led-source

led-glass-bricks

glass-brick-display

Thanks, Make!

Turn Your Ceiling Fan into A Low Res LED Display

ceiling fan LED

Instructables user UncleBone posted one of the coolest Instructables I’ve read on that site – making an LED ceiling fan display! He remade the blades, added some homemade circuit boards, and created the image mapping himself.  Good sir, I commend you!

Check out a very quick video of his final project – the frame rate’s off and makes the product look a bit choppy, but you get the idea.  Also, check out the Instructable here!

ceilingfanled

ceilingfanpov

ceilingfanpov112

Thanks for the heads up, Make!

HILARIOUS Ad for the NKK OLED Switch

NKK SmartSwitch

One of my most trusted OLED sources posted a video from NKK switches about their fully programmable OLED SmartSwitch a few weeks ago – I’m just now getting to see it.  Specs on the switch from OLED-Info:

The OLED SmartSwitch and SmartDisplay are programmable pushbutton switches and displays that feature a programmable and changeable OLED module with 65,536 colors in 16 bit mode, and 256 colors in 8 bit mode. Both devices are capable of displaying full-motion video.

The OLED SmartSwitch and SmartDisplay are emissive devices operated by commands and data supplied via the SPI communications protocol. The switch is capable of 64RGB x 48 pixel resolution and the display 52RGB x 36. The wide viewing area of the switch is 15.5mm x 11.6mm (horizontal x vertical) and the display is 12.9mm x 9.9mm (horizontal x vertical).

I also found a product video on the OLED SmartSwitch on the NKK website, but it’s a little less hilarious: