Nixie Tube Clock: Amber Glow of Neon Gas Discharge Technology in Retro and Vintage Electronic Clocks

by DerdriuMarriner

A product of the 1950s, Nixie Tube Clocks continue to impress electronic aficionados through retro and vintage incarnations which celebrate their fail-safe, amber glow technology.

Nixies derive their name from NIX 1, an abbreviation for Numeric Indicator Experiment No. 1, which was the laboratory designation for the cold cathode tube product finessed by the Burroughs Corporation in the mid-1950s.

Although languishing from competition in the 1970s, Nixies are still available.
• Volume manufacture of Nixies especially continued in the former Soviet Union in the 1980s.
• Escaping destruction, surplus tubes have been stored in warehouses for decades, especially in Russia and eastern European countries.

With a resurgence in popularity lingering into the twenty-first century, Nixies are available, especially as clocks but also as watches, with vintage tubes from surplus warehouses and with retro styling.
• Steve Wozniak (born August 11, 1950), co-founder of Apple Computer (now Apple Inc.), happily sports his glowing timepiece on his left wrist.

Nixie Tube timekeeper fan: closeup of Nixie Tube watch on left wrist of Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak)

"Woz' Nixie Tube Watch": August 28, 2010
"Woz' Nixie Tube Watch": August 28, 2010

Back story of a 20th century invention

 

Introduced ca. 1955 - 1956 by Burroughs Corporation, a business machine manufacturing giant founded in 1886 in St. Louis, Missouri, the Nixie tube derives its name from NIX 1, an abbreviation of Numeric Indicator Experiment No. 1, Burroughs' laboratory designation for the cold-cathode display tube.

Nixie tubes have enjoyed such popularity that the trade name, trademarked by the Burroughs Corporation, has become the generic name, thereby superseding the proper generic name of cold cathode neon readout tube.

By the 1970s Nixies were suffering competition from:
• light-emitting diodes (LEDs), first introduced by Texas Instruments in October 1962 and
• vacuum fluorescent displays (VFDs), first introduced in 1959 by Dutch-based electronics giant, Philips.

Manufacture in volume continued in the former Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Fortunately, surplus tubes were not destroyed but instead were stored as surplus in warehouses, especially in Russia and eastern European countries.

 

Vintage Nixie Clock - Art Deco Design with Never Been Used Before 30 Year Old Tubes - Handcrafted ~ Available via Amazon

Only 250 made - numbered certificate of authenticity included ~ Art Deco Design in a handcrafted wooden enclosure ~ 4 Nixie tubes from new old stock that are at least 30 years old
Nixie Tube products

Nixie technology: Glow of electric discharge in gas-filled tube

 

The electronic device known as the Nixie tube uses glow discharge to display information via letters, numerals, or symbols which are stacked as individual units in a glass gas-filled tube.

  • The most popular usage of Nixie tubes has been for numeric displays, especially as timepieces such as clocks or watches.

Glow discharge references the luminous glow of plasma, which joins gas, liquid, and solid in the quartet of the four fundamental states of matter.

  • Plasma may be created from gas which has been either heated or subjected to a strong electromagnetic field.
  • Nixie tubes comprise the category of cold cathode tubes because their glow is activated by an electrical current, not by heat.

Each tube in a Nixie Clock houses:

  • a metal-meshed anode;
  • ten metal cathodes, shaped as numbers 0 through 9 and stacked behind each other, with placement determined by digit contours rather than by sequence;
  • mercury, a transition metal also known as quicksilver, and neon, an inert gas, in a Penning mixture, a prescribed mixture of gases for lighting or displays.

The application of 175 to 180 volts of electricity between the anode and the selected cathode ionizes, or charges, the neon gas, thereby producing an amber glow which illuminates the number.

 

Classic Nixie Tube Clock Kit, IN-82 Tubes, Teak Maple Hardwood Base ~ Available via Amazon

Nixie Tube products

Conclusion: Timelessly appealing amber glow of Nixie Tube Clocks

 

Nixie Tube Clocks exert timeless appeal, as testified by their resurgence in popularity, serving as a nostalgic bridge between the first decade of the technology-themed twenty-first century and the last five decades of the technology-oriented twentieth century.

The tubes' signature amber light glows heartily and cultivates warm reminiscences of hearth fires.

Thanks to surplus tubes, housed in warehouses long after cessation of production in volume, Nixies are available in contemporary and retro styles. The tubes' vintage status emphasizes not only their past significance but also their future coherence.

  • Fortunate, indeed, are the fans who own authentic Nixie Tube Clocks, warmly appreciated and carefully preserved since the two decade-plus heyday of mid-1950s to early 1980s.

 

Classic Nixie Tube Clock Kit, IN-82 Tubes, See-Through Acrylic Base ~ Available via Amazon

Nixie Tube products

Acknowledgment

 

My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.

 

Nixie Clock, with six ZM1210 tubes made by Telefunken

Telefunken: German radio and television apparatus company, founded in Berlin, northeastern Germany, in 1903
Telefunken: German radio and television apparatus company, founded in Berlin, northeastern Germany, in 1903

Sources Consulted

 

Dakin, C.J., and C.E.G. Cooke. Circuits for Digital Equipment. London UK: Iliffe Books Ltd., 1967.

Libes, Sol. Fundamentals and Applications of Digital Logic Circuits. Rochelle Park NJ: Hayden Book Company, 1975.

Veeneman, Dan. "Nixie Tube Displays." Decode Systems > Vintage Displays. Dan Veeneman. Web. www.decodesystems.comSobel, Alan. “Electronic Numbers.” Scientific American, Vol. 228, No. 6 (June 1, 1973): 64 - 73.

  • Available at: http://www.decodesystems.com/nixie.html 

 

amber glow of time via Nixie Tube technology shows time as 13 minutes shy of 7 o'clock: precisely, 6 hours 46 minutes 37 seconds

Nixie tubes
Nixie tubes
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Classic Nixie Tube Clock Kit - IN-14 Tubes, See Through Acrylic Base ~ Available via Amazon

Nixie Tube products

Nixie: image by dubassy ~ Poster available via AllPosters

Nixie

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 01/15/2015, DerdriuMarriner
 
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DerdriuMarriner on 01/29/2015

burntchestnut, I'm happy that I introduced Nixie Tube Clocks to you! They're simply amazing!

AngelaJohnson on 01/28/2015

This is something I've never heard of.

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