Nixie Tube



A nixie tube, or cold cathode display, is an electronic device for displaying numerals or other information using glow discharge. The glass tube contains a wire-mesh anode and multiple cathodes, shaped like numerals or other symbols. Applying power to one cathode surrounds it with an orange glow discharge. The tube is filled with a gas at low pressure, usually mostly neon and often a little mercury or argon.

Although it resembles a vacuum tube in appearance, its operation does not depend on thermionic emission of electrons from a heated cathode. It is therefore called a cold-cathode tube (a form of gas-filled tube), or a variant of neon lamp. Such tubes rarely exceed 40 °C (104 °F) even under the most severe of operating conditions in a room at ambient temperature. Vacuum fluorescent displays from the same era use completely different technology – they have a heated cathode together with a control grid and shaped phosphor anodes; Nixies have no heater or control grid, typically a single anode, and shaped bare metal cathodes.

The early Nixie displays were made by a small vacuum tube manufacturer called Haydu Brothers Laboratories, and introduced in 1955 by Burroughs Corporation, who purchased Haydu. The name Nixie was derived by Burroughs from ‘NIX I,’ an abbreviation of ‘Numeric Indicator eXperimental No. 1,’ although this may have been a backronym designed to evoke a mythical creature. Hundreds of variations of this design were manufactured by many firms, from the 1950s until the 1990s. The Burroughs Corporation introduced ‘Nixie’ and owned the name as a trademark. Nixie-like displays made by other firms had trademarked names including Digitron, Inditron, and Numicator. A proper generic term is cold cathode neon readout tube, though the phrase Nixie tube quickly entered the vernacular as a generic name. Devices that functioned in the same way as Nixie tubes were patented in the 1930s, and the first mass-produced display tubes were introduced in 1954 by National Union Co. under the brand name Inditron. However, their construction was cruder, their average lifetime was shorter, and they failed to find many applications due to their complex periphery.

Each cathode can be made to glow in the characteristic neon red-orange color by applying about 170 volts DC at a few milliamperes between a cathode and the anode. Some color variation can be observed between types, caused by differences in the gas mixtures used. Longer-life tubes that were manufactured later in the Nixie timeline have mercury added to reduce sputtering resulting in a blue or purple tinge to the emitted light. In some cases, these colors are filtered out by a red or orange filter coating on the glass. Average longevity of Nixie tubes varied from about 5,000 hours for the earliest types, to as high as 200,000 hours or more for some of the last types to be introduced. As testament to their longevity, and that of the equipment which used them, in 2006 several suppliers still provide common Nixie-tube types as service-replacement parts, new in original packaging. Equipment with Nixie-tube displays in excellent working condition is still plentiful, though much of it has been in frequent use for 30–40 years or more. Such items can easily be found as surplus and obtained at very little expense. In the former Soviet Union, Nixies were still being manufactured in volume in the 1980s, so Russian and Eastern European Nixies are still available.

Nixies were used as numeric displays in early digital voltmeters, multimeters, frequency counters, and other types of technical equipment. They also appeared in costly digital time displays used in research and military establishments, and in many early electronic desktop calculators, including the very first: the Sumlock-Comptometer ANITA Mk VII of 1961, and even the first electronic telephone switchboards. Later alphanumeric versions in fourteen segment displayformat found use in airport arrival/departure signs and stock ticker displays. Some elevators used Nixies to display floor numbers. One advantage of the Nixie tube is that its cathodes are typographically designed, shaped for legibility. In most types, they are not placed in numerical sequence from back to front, but arranged so that cathodes in front of the one that is lit obscure it minimally.

Nixie tubes were superseded in the 1970s by light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and vacuum fluorescent displays (VFDs), often in the form of seven-segment displays. The VFD used a hot filament to emit electrons, a control grid and phosphor-coated anodes ( similar to a cathode ray tube) shaped to represent segments of a digit, pixels of a graphical display, or complete letters, symbols, or words. Whereas Nixies typically require 180 volts to illuminate, VFDs only require relatively low voltages to operate, making them easier and cheaper to use. VFDs have a simple internal structure, resulting in a bright, sharp, and unobstructed image. Unlike Nixies, the glass envelope of a VFD is evacuated rather than being filled with a specific mixture of gases at low pressure. LEDs were better suited to the low voltages that integrated circuits used, which was an advantage for devices such as pocket calculators, digital watches, and handheld digital measurement instruments. Also, LEDs were much smaller and sturdier, without a fragile glass envelope. LEDs had lower power consumption than both VFDs and Nixie tubes.

Citing dissatisfaction with the aesthetics of modern digital displays and a nostalgic fondness for the styling of obsolete technology, electronics enthusiasts in recent years have shown interest in reviving Nixies. Unsold tubes that have been sitting in warehouses for decades are being brought out and used, the most common application being in homemade digital clocks. This is somewhat ironic, since during their heyday, Nixies were generally considered too expensive for use in mass-market consumer goods. This recent surge in demand has caused prices to rise significantly, particularly for large tubes. The largest Nixie tubes known to be in the hands of collectors, the very rare Rodan CD47/GR-414 (220 mm tall), are sold for hundreds of dollars each.


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