The Art of Nixies Hack Chat

Art under glass

Wednesday, October 28, 2020 12:00 pm PDT Local time zone:
Hack Chat
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Dalibor Farný will host the Hack Chat on Wednesday, October 28, 2020 at noon Pacific Time.

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Join Hack ChatWhen they were invented in the 1950s, Nixie tubes were a huge leap forward in display technology. In the days before affordable LEDs made seven-segment displays a commodity, there were few alternatives to the charming glow of the clear and legible characters inside Nixies. Sturdy and reliable, the cold-cathode displays found their way into everything from scientific instruments to test equipment, and even some of the earliest computers and the equipment that formed the foundation of the space race sported the venerable tubes.

But time marches on, and a display that requires high voltage and special driver circuits isn't long for a world where LEDs are cheap and easy to design with. Nixies fell from favor through the late 1960s and 1970s, to the point where new tubes were only being made by the Russians, until that supply dried up as well. Rediscovered by hobbyists for use in quirky clocks and other displays, any stock left over from the Nixie's heyday are quickly being snapped up, putting the tubes on the fast track to unobtainium status.

That's not to say that you can't get brand new Nixie tubes, of course. Artisanal manufacturers like Dalibor Farný have taken the Nixie to a whole new level, with big, beautiful tubes that are handcrafted from the best materials. Reviving the somewhat lost art of Nixie manufacturing wasn't easy, but the tubes that Dalibor makes in a castle in the Czech Republic now find their way into cool clocks and other builds around the world. He'll join us on the Hack Chat to dive into the art and science of Nixies, and what's going on with his mysterious "Project H".

  • Hack Chat Transcript, Part 2

    Dan Maloney10/28/2020 at 20:27 0 comments

    Dalibor Farny1:10 PM
    Recycling - that would be very hard to do considering we produce very small quantity of tubes and sell them all over the world. We use just few grams of mercury per year - such a small quantity is enough for us.

    Kevin1:10 PM
    There are similar issues with LEDs and CFLs, IIRC. One uses mercury and the other arsenic. Forget which uses which.

    Dalibor Farny1:10 PM
    CFLs uses Hg as well

    Lightning Phil1:10 PM
    Nixie tubes are much nicer than CLFs :)

    Guru-san1:11 PM
    @Dalibor Farny what gas mixture/ratio do you use in your tubes?

    anfractuosity1:11 PM
    sorry if this was already answered , how does mercury increase the lifespan out of interest?

    Kevin1:11 PM
    I'm not in to chemistry or physics so I don't know what it is about the toxic elements that make them so suitable for use in lighting devices.

    Dalibor Farny1:11 PM
    BTW - is there anyone who could point me to a lawyer or some organization that could confirm that we fall under that RoHS exemption? I tried several people/organizations, but no one was able to give me good answer..

    Kevin1:13 PM
    Interesting to hear people are still making and using Nixie tubes. I don't think I've seen a device that uses those types of tubes since I last saw them many years ago where they were used in a photocopier for the counter display.

    Dalibor Farny1:13 PM
    It is believed that the large and heavy molecule of mercury inhibits fast moving ions of neon, so their impact to the cathode doesnt cause a knock-off of the cathode metal so often as it would happen without mercury. From my observations, the Hg filled tube is much more stable also from the cathode poisoning point of view.. From what I tried without Hg, all the tests were pretty disappoiting

    anfractuosity1:14 PM
    very interesting, thanks!

    Dalibor Farny1:14 PM
    @Kevin yes, we need to create our own market because nixie tubes doesnt have any advantages over modern lighting sources.. They are just beautiful and alien, so we make beautiful and alien clocks out of them :-)

    curiousmarc1:15 PM
    That's advantage enough for me!

    Dalibor Farny1:16 PM
    @curiousmarc fortunately this advantage keeps our little business alive :-)

    anfractuosity1:16 PM
    could you make a lighting matrix using nixie technology? i'm not sure if that's been done before or not

    Andy Pugh1:17 PM
    Can you claim that your tubes are just really badly designed thermometers? (assuming that thermometers are still allowed to use mercury)

    What, like an LED matrix panel, just with cathodes for dots?

    Dalibor Farny1:17 PM
    I believe a matrix displays were made with neon..

    Jeff Gough joined the room.1:17 PM

    anfractuosity1:17 PM
    oh cool

    Andy Pugh1:17 PM
    Nixie-ASCII art?

    Seven segment Nixies? Would be kind of like a Numitron, no?

    Dalibor Farny1:19 PM
    @Andy Pugh RoHS is about the actual application - where customers use it, not about for what it is designed.. So if they are used in clocks, we need to match the rules.. :-)

    Dalibor Farny1:20 PM
    Numitron is another example of alien technology.. Nowadays all displays look the same, but look at 60s - nixies, edge-lit, numitrons etc..

    Jeff Gough1:20 PM
    @Dalibor Farny hey Dalibor, can you tell us a bit about how you bootstrapped the business- investors/business loans etc to cover your research phase? Seems the small nixie market might scare off conventional angel investors

    Dalibor Farny1:20 PM
    Just like the 6-wheel formula 1 decased ago..

    Dalibor Farny1:20 PM

    anfractuosity1:21 PM
    i've got an electroluminescent display matrix that i need to get working

    Guru-san1:23 PM
    @Dalibor Farny what penning mixture your R|Z568M have? I read 99% Neon and 1% argon, but unsure if that's actually used in nixies. Also have you tried to play with different mixtures to change the glow colour?

  • Hack Chat Transcript, Part 1

    Dan Maloney10/28/2020 at 20:27 0 comments

    OK folks, let's get going. I'm Dan and I'll be the mod today for Dalibor Farny, who we're very glad to welcome to the chat.

    Hi Dalibor, thanks for joining us today. Can you start us off with a little about your background and how you got started in Nixies?

    Dalibor Farny12:01 PM
    Hi everyone, I am really pleased you took your time to come here to have a chat today..

    Dalibor Farny12:02 PM
    My name is Dalibor Farny, I live in Czech Republic (a small country next to Germany :-) )..

    Nathan Diniz12:03 PM
    wow! That's a long ways away from where I live.

    Dalibor Farny12:03 PM
    Before starting with nixie tubes in 2011, I was mostly in software - programming web apps, but I was also running my own projects as a business. It was a bit too stereotypic..

    j12:03 PM

    You talked about the new spectroscope so that you can analyze the anode poisoning. Do you have a hint, what you will look for?

    Or is there a way to use different gas'es so there is a different color glowing on the cathode?

    imo: If anybode could pull that off, its you. Best wishes from Berlin, Germany

    Dalibor Farny12:03 PM
    And when I found nixie tubes.. I fell in love..

    opeRaptor12:04 PM
    Hello @Dalibor Farny

    opeRaptor12:05 PM
    Thank you for taking the time to hackChat with us!

    Dalibor Farny12:05 PM
    @j the cathode poisoning - I now have alsmost all parts I need, now looking for a scroll pump.. As for the gases - it is possible, but from what I tried with argon, the lifespan is very short.. In couple of days the tube is heavily sputtered.

    Jon Foote12:06 PM
    Do you use a Penning mixture?

    Dalibor Farny12:06 PM
    Also, I cant use mercury to limit the sputtering of the metal - the mercury haze is more visible than the dim argon glow :-) So it looks like all the tube glows..

    Dalibor Farny12:06 PM
    yes, Penning mixture

    Jon Foote12:06 PM
    Thanks! Is that a standard ratio?

    Lightning Phil12:06 PM

    nick joined the room.12:06 PM

    Nathan Diniz12:06 PM
    I want to save this chat.

    @Nathan Diniz - No worries, I post a transcript right after the chat

    Lightning Phil12:07 PM
    Q - which alloy are you using for the filaments - if that's what they're called in a nixi?

    Nathan Diniz12:07 PM

    Dalibor Farny12:07 PM
    another possibility is to use a helium - lightweight molecule that might not cause such erosion of the metal cathodes..

    nick12:07 PM
    Hi Dalibor - nick from the UK & Dubai here (and mod of neonixie-l) - Just love you clock - has pride of place in our house...

    Dalibor Farny12:08 PM
    @nick Hi Nick, nice to meet you here :-)

    Dalibor Farny12:09 PM
    @Lightning Phil we use 304 stainless steel that is commonly available and very good in terms of lifespan.. I heard that other manufacturers used Ni or NiFe cathodes as well as SS

    Clive12:09 PM
    Q - what is the lifespan using Helium?

    Dalibor Farny12:10 PM
    @Clive I havent tried - the problem with argon is that we need to go to 5 times higher current to get the glow cover whole digit.. This makes the evaporation of the metal really fast..

    Andy Geppert12:10 PM
    @Dalibor Farny Q: From your testing, can you recommend a period of time where each element in a Nixie tube should be activated, and for what duration, to prevent poisoning? Is every 24 hours for a few seconds adequate, in the case of an always-on clock? (Which I know is not a great practice - better to have it motion sensing or only on when someone is around.)

    opeRaptor12:11 PM
    Have you experimented with epoxy seals for the sockets? I know epoxy tends to degas a lot but do you think it would be possible?

    Phil G joined the room.12:11 PM

    Dalibor Farny12:11 PM
    @Andy Geppert I have a brief info here, I am working on more detailed one:

    Lightning Phil12:11 PM
    Thanks Dalibor. Experimented with various tungsten alloys - thoriated being quite good - for x-ray production. Still spluttered. Wondering if the coatings used to low emission temp of cathodes would assist in spluttering reduction - they can be...

    Read more »

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