This clock is a typical desk-type clock one might find on a bookshelf
in an office. However, this clock is quite unique in that is uses
genuine vacuum-tube technology to display the time. The use of vacuum
tubes in modern electronic appliances is in some sense a way to
connect with the past. This clock mixes a little bit of history with
modern electronics to create a design ethos combining both the ultra
modern 1960s with current retro trends.
- ARTISTIC STATEMENT
The model name, NIXIИ (pronounced nik'sē'ē), hints at the provenance of
the vacuum tubes used, but moreover, tries to pay tribute to the
history invoked by this clock's design. With this clock, I wanted to
capture an element of a bygone era, the nixie tube, in a modern piece
of electronics equipment suitable for display.
The nixie tube is itself an anachronistic cast-off in the timeline of
modern electronics development. As the dawn of digital electronics
loomed, the days of the vacuum tube were numbered. True, the first
computers were powered by vacuum tubes, but as soon as the transistor
was commercially accepted, the vacuum tube.s role as the switching
element in digital electronics was clearly diminishing. And yet, the
Burroughs Corporation produced the nixie tube well into the 1970s.
This apparent disconnect points to an interesting loophole in the
ceaseless march of progress of the electronics industry.
Display technology significantly lagged the early development of the
transistor. Tremendous energy was being spent to develop the new
transistor, so the then-mature vacuum tube technology lost some of its
development steam. In this slack water created by the relatively
primitive display technology, a market niche opened for vacuum tubes
to dominate the technology. The computers of the day did not have
suitable means to display their coded, binary output on a simple,
legible numerical output in real time. Computers could easily display
output on a teletypewriter terminal, but real-time displays were
difficult for the then-new computers in the late 1950s. To fill this
need, the Burroughs Corporation developed the nixie tube (Numerical
Indicator, eXperImental typE). The digital display tube quickly made
its way into test equipment, timing displays, scientific experiments,
and anywhere else digital data needed to be displayed.
Seeing this development in the West, the USSR set about to manufacture
its own nixie-like tubes that performed the same function. The
ИН-series of glowing discharge display tubes was created to mimic the
various size and shape nixie tubes of the West. By the 1970s however,
LED and semiconductor technology in the US had advanced to the point
that the nixie tubes had become obsolete. In fact, US tube
manufacturers stopped making them altogether by the mid-70s. However
the silicon chip industry in the USSR, and by extension LEDs, was not
as advanced as the West. As such, the vacuum tube display technology
stayed current well into the 80s in the USSR. Now the cold war has
ended, the entire world has moved on from nixie tube technology.
Nixie tubes are today most commonly seen in old print ads and dated
sci-fi movies. Occasionally, dinosaur laboratory equipment will
surface with the tubes as the display element. As we move ever faster
toward the digital future, technologies are left behind every day. On
an ever shorter time scale, electronics of yesterday are today
obsolete and anachronistic. This clock stands to remind the user of
the pace of technology, and the rather sad fate of technologies left
behind, no longer en vogue.
Nixie tubes are now available through collector and surplus outlets
only. The US-made tubes are available still, but they hold a less
poignant place in the history of the demise of vacuum tube technology
than their USSR cousins. As such, Russian-made vacuum tubes were
specially selected for this clock. According to their original
manufacturer, these tubes are rated for tens of thousands of hours of
continuous use in extreme vibration and altitude environments. The
exotic materials used in the tubes. construction, Molybdenum,
Tungsten, Mercury, steatite ceramics, etc., stand testament to the
immense work put into their development and manufacture. The
manufacture date of 1971 points to a time when the tube industry had
reached its pinnacle in both reliability and technological
advancement. Truly, these tubes represent one facet of the peak of
the USSR's intellectual and scientific output, fueled by the Cold
War's escalations. Thus, it is important to reflect on the place
these tubes occupy in their new home. As military surplus from the
former soviet state of Ukraine, they stand as a tribute to the
enormity of the Cold War's impact on technological development on both
sides of the iron curtain.
The electronics driving the nixie tubes are state-of-the-art by
current standards. Surface-mount components, the peak of current
discrete electronics miniaturization, were chosen expressly to further
underline the generation gap between the clock itself and its nixie
display tubes. The contrast is heightened through this difference,
allowing the clock to pay tribute to its digital past.
Your NIXIИ-1 clock is intended to be used and displayed as you would
any other stationary clock. It is a non-alarm digital clock. It
displays time in a 12-hour format, HH:MM. The glass door on the front
of the clock opens for closer inspection of the vacuum tubes.
Recently-trained electrical engineers may have never seen a vacuum
tube in real life, much less a vacuum tube in operation. As such, the
tubes inside will garner a fair amount of interest from
technically-inclined people. However, be warned that hazardous
voltages exist in the clock. While not lethal, the clock can deliver
an unpleasant shock. Keep fingers away from the bottom of the circuit
board to which the tubes are soldered.
should be placed in a low-traffic area, as the internal tubes (while
rated for extreme abuse) are still delicate. Consider the clock a
piece of functional art, and treat it as such. Occasional dusting of
the wooden box with a gentle wood cleaner such as Pledge is
appropriate, as well as periodic cleaning of the glass door with a
For reference, the horizontal board holding the tubes is the display
board. It decodes the time signals from the microprocessor and
displays them on the vacuum tubes. The circuit board mounted on the
back wall of the clock box is the microprocessor and high voltage
power supply board. Nixie tubes require 175V to operate, so the power
supply steps the 9V input up to the 175V required. The microprocessor
uses a quartz time base and divides the oscillations of the quartz
crystal down to the appropriate units; hours, minutes, etc. The 9V
powering the clock comes from a black plug-in transformer, attached to
the clock's box. The transformer is a standard black plug-in type
unit, 120V 60Hz, and is attached to the clock by a 6 foot cord.
Time is set by pushing the “H(our)” and
“M(inute)” buttons on the back of the clock. When first plugged in, your clock will
display 08:08, and the time inside the clock's circuitry will be
08:08:58. Three seconds later, the time will display 08:09. This was
done to aid in synchronization of your clock to another time base.
Nixie tubes, unlike other vacuum tubes, do not have a filament. This has
two major impacts on the operational characteristics of the clock.
Nixie tubes produce very little heat, and as such, do not require the
kind of ventilation that other vacuum tubes need to function. Also,
the tubes. operational lifetimes are greatly extended past that of
regular vacuum tubes.
Your clock is warranted against defects such as malfunctioning tubes
or circuitry for one year of continuous, normal use from the date of
shipment. Breakage of the tubes due to misuse or abuse of the clock
is not covered. Normal use as outlined in 3) is recommended.
Following the recommendations should give the user many years of
trouble-free use. After some time, the tubes will begin to lose
brightness. This is normal ageing for these tubes. When the tubes
are no longer legible from darkening of the glass, the tubes must be
replaced. The tubes can be replaced by the manufacturer for a fee.
- TECHNICAL DETAILS
This clock is microprocessor controlled, using the PIC16F84A chip.
This microcontroller has over 1k of memory, and runs at 3.6MHz. This
makes it a little less powerful than the venerable Apple IIe, but on a
single chip. It is no surprise that given Moore's law, integration of
electronics technology has progressed to this scale. The quartz
oscillator used is a low-drift type, giving accurate time for years to
come. High voltage is supplied by a high efficiency switching power
supply. Data are latched in TTL chips. Cathodes of the vacuum tubes
are switched by miniature FFMTA42 high voltage transistors. The nixie
tubes are type ИН-16 tubes. Power comes from a Diamond Multimedia 9V
The enclosure is a deeply stained wood box measuring 4 5/8” x 4
5/8” x 2 7/8”. The handsom box has a door on the front
with a glass insert that allows inspection of the unique Russian nixie
tubes and the circuit boards driving them. The door has quality latch
hardware and black hinges. Each clock has an individually signed
label on the back with serial number and brief operating instructions.