Nixie Clock | Design Review

Introduction

Bold, elegant, simple, and retro. These are the first impressions I’m aiming for in my home built nixie clock. I’ve been obsessed with this archaic-yet-elegant technology for over a year now, and this project is my chance to finally dig in. My goal is to blend two polar opposite aesthetics- Cold War era “outdated” tech, and contemporary, sleek design.

Predominantly produced in the USSR from the 1950’s through the 1980’s, these bulbs have stacked, individual filaments. One anode is powered, and makes that “layer” illuminate. These were widely used on early electronics (Before 7-segment displays), as seen here:

Nixie Calculator (source: 2.bp.blogspot.com)

By Hellbus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4741470

My goal with this project is to find some of these bulbs, and create a modern-aesthetic clock with this cold-war era technology. I’m really excited about the combination of these two, and can’t wait to get going!

 

Inspiration

For me, the concept of “time” is pretty fundamental to my outlook on life. The way people value time and who (or what) they give their time to say a lot about a person, and the variety of ways people spend it fascinates me. Athletes and artists dedicate the majority of their time to a skill, often times exclusively for the personal satisfaction it brings them. Others dedicate their time to excellence in academics or a career, and their life is truly lived with that goal before everything else. With every degree of the spectrum in between, though, one thing remains constant- the amount of time we have to spend is fixed, and unknown.

I have made multiple major life decisions (college…people…careers…) ultimately based on asking myself how I’d like spend my fixed (and unknown) amount of time, and have therefore developed a quirky fascination with clocks. When I heard the design constraints for this project were only “a change in time”, I knew my project would have something to do with a clock.

As an engineer, one of the most fascinating things to me is the amount of technology that has changed and evolved in an incredibly short amount of time- there were people alive when the Wright Brothers took the first jump from Earth, as well as when Neil Armstrong put the first footprint on the moon. The amount of explosive growth between “vintage” and “cutting edge” is mind blowing to me, and an aesthetic I really wanted to explore in this project.

Though this photo is not a clock, this is very much the aesthetic I have in mind to blend with the 1960’s era technology bulbs:

 

Elegant, single-piece wood feature

https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0923/8822/products/product_woodblock_2_of_5_1024x1024.jpg?v=1437353662

 

Critical Components

The most critical component of this project will be the actual Nixie tubes- these are my Go/No Go metric. I’ve already ordered these (from a surplus warehouse in Russia….), and am really hoping they actually show up. However, it seems as though these bulbs will be delivered by Friday of this week, which is great news (as I was initially very worried about a much longer shipping time).

The clock control breakout board is also already ordered, and should be in next week as well. Functionally, this is everything I should need for a working clock. However, making a working clock is not my design goal- but rather to make an aesthetic statement in the form of this clock.

My next step will be to start sourcing my wood to be used as the enclosure. I’m very keen on the idea of a single piece of wood (milled out for the electronics), so I’ll likely investigate options for that beginning this weekend.

Timeline

  • March 4-6th: Anticipated receiving window for tubes and clock
  • March 7-12th: Planned wood sourcing timeframe
  • March 15-19th: Anticipated electronics testing and confirmation window
  • March 22-26th: Spring break
  • March 28th-1st: Enclosure design finalization
  • April 4-8th: Wood machining
  • April 11-15th: Finishing, integration
  • April 23rd: Design Expo!

 

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9 Comments. Leave new

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  • This looks cool, I can’t wait to see how you pull this off. I think the series lost has a counter like this in it.

    Reply
  • If your source for nixie bulbs works out let me know. I’ve always wanted to use them in a project -The electronics should be interesting too.

    Reply
  • Kevin Martin
    Ashley Zimmerer
    March 7, 2016 2:39 pm

    While ReSource usually has pretty crappy wood, you may be able to find a decent piece that you could restore. They’ve got an inside area near the tool library and occasionally they’ll have some nice looking wood that’s good quality.
    How are you powering it? Can you plug the board you’re ordering directly into the wall?

    Reply
  • Kevin Martin
    Kenzy O'neill
    March 7, 2016 12:37 pm

    I really like the aesthetic of the simplistic, single-piece wood case. I look forward to seeing the clean cut final product.

    Reply
  • Kevin Martin
    Daniel Moody
    March 7, 2016 12:24 pm

    I really like the warm glow these tubes give off. I think that might play well with dark wood or bright metal.

    Reply
  • Kevin Martin
    Chip Bollendonk
    March 7, 2016 12:21 pm

    Oh wow, so cool. Soviet Union technology has always been so advanced and I’m glad you’re getting to harness this power with your project.

    Reply
  • Kevin Martin
    Meridith Richter
    March 7, 2016 12:01 am

    I think the aesthetic you are going for with the old bulbs and clock design is extremely appealing nowadays, taking something retro and reincorporating it into our modern lives. I feel like the movie Her really demonstrates that: they live in a futuristic world with AI and other advanced technologies, yet the aesthetic of their workspaces and homes (and even clothing) remains largely influenced and inspired by 1960’s design. Clearly that was a choice made by the filmmakers, but at the same time I think it is a trend we see nowadays, especially with hipsters and the like. What kind of wood are you planning on using? Are you going to stain it or leave it more raw-looking? I can’t wait to see how it turns out!

    Reply

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