They were tagged with the unfortunate name NIX-1, for Numeric Indicator Experimental-1. But by the time they hit the streets, in 1954, they had been nicknamed Nixie, and they arrived just in time to become the warm, reassuring face of electronics' heady adolescence. They went on to literally light up the New York Stock Exchange, cruise under the sea aboard Navy submarines, and wink by the hundreds at NASA mission controllers guiding rockets to the moon.
A Nixie is basically a set of diodes in a glass tube containing a little neon gas. The cathodes are numerals, lined up one behind the other. Voltage applied to one ionizes the surrounding neon, and the numeral seems to light up.
If it is possible for an electronic component to be beloved, surely Nixie tubes were. With their graceful digits glowing a pleasing orange, they lent a touch of class to all kinds of 1950s and 1960s electronica, from voltmeters to desk calculators. But in the end, like long-playing records and British sports cars, Nixies were eclipsed by more practical and rugged successors. They lost ground in the 1970s, ultimately to seven-segment LEDs.
Now, though, Nixies are staging a spirited comeback. Home hobbyists have given the design cognoscenti something new to covet: a digital clock with a Nixie-tube display. Several organizations in the United States and Europe are selling them ready-made for prices between US $250 and $1200. The photos that follow, of clocks by hobbyists, testify to the ingenuity and creativity that these builders are bringing to their clocks.
The new appreciation of Nixies is due in no small measure to one Mike Harrison, a consultant near London who designed an elegant, robust, and versatile clock circuit based on inexpensive components and posted it on his Web site (http://www.netcomuk.co.uk/~wwl/nixclock.html). The site has had 100 000 hits over the past couple of years, Harrison reports.
Although Nixies have not been manufactured in the United States or Europe for a quarter century, treasure hunters still occasionally stumble upon a trove of tubes in a warehouse. Garden-variety unused Nixies can still be bought for $8-$20 a tube (or even less on eBay). But connoisseurs now treat some remaining stocks like vintage wine, bidding as much as $450 apiece for certain rare and coveted tubes (typically giants up to 15 cm long).
Ironically, in their heyday Nixies were seldom used in clocks. A set of tubes and the required chips would have priced a clock too far above the mechanical kind. Such a timepiece isn't exactly cheap today, either, but now it seems an ideal if belated use for Nixies. Not only do the tubes put a delicate and whimsical face on the most utilitarian of appliances, their authentically retro look is a vivid reminder of the passage of time. They call to mind an era when horn-rimmed eyeglasses and pocket protectors were more than cheap Hollywood props.
"They're like little electronic campfires," says Walter Shawlee II, an IEEE associate member and owner of Sphere Research Corp. (Kelowna, B.C., Canada) (http://www.sphere.bc.ca/), an instrumentation contracting company that also sells Nixies and other technology artifacts. Contemplating the enduring appreciation of Nixies, Shawlee adds, "People have this wistful longing for the stuff that looks better."