Creating a Steampunk Nixie Tube Clock - Embedded.com

Creating a Steampunk Nixie Tube Clock

I am a weak-willed man and I can no longer stand the strain. Ever since I first feasted my orbs on the Nixie tube masterpieces created by designer extraordinaire, Paul Parry — a man whose brass acorn nuts I am not fit to polish — my mind has been churning with desire (see also Outrageously Cool Nixie Tube Clocks).

Initially, I have to admit that I was tempted by The Araminta Clock as illustrated below. As an aside, I've been bouncing emails back and forth with Paul, who tells me that the weird “umbrella” doohickey sticking out of the top of the pipe coming out of the left-hand side of the clock is actually an antique fire extinguisher sprinkler head. Who would have thunk?


The Araminta Clock (Source: Bad Dog Designs)

Now, while it's certainly true that four Nixie tubes displaying hours and minutes have their charms, it also cannot be argued that using an additional pair of tubes to display seconds adds to the visual feast, as exemplified by Paul's Turing Clock.


The Turing Clock (Source: Bad Dog Designs)

And then, when I was least expecting it, someone pointed me at a video of Paul's Gemini Nixie Tube Clock featuring a mechanical engine on top and dual Dekatron tubes indicating the passage of the seconds on the front.

What can I say? My life will no-longer be complete without my very own Steampunk Nixie Tube Chronograph flaunting itself on my desk here in my office. So, how are we going to make this happen?

On the one hand, there's a tremendous amount of satisfaction to be gained from building everything oneself from the ground-up. On this basis, I started thinking about researching different types of Nixie tubes, creating a custom circuit board, and so on and so forth.

On the other hand, there's also a very good argument to be made against “re-inventing the wheel” (the shape is good enough, but what about the color?). The reason I say this is that Paul kindly pointed me toward the website of PV Electronics, which is owned by his good friend Pete Virica. It wasn't long before I was having a happy root around the PV Electronics website — I took the time to have a quick drool over some more Nixie tube clocks — and I discovered that Pete does indeed sell the electronics on their own, with or without the Nixie tubes.

The next point to ponder is — in addition to the Nixie tubes themselves — what other delights should I include in my masterpiece? I must admit that I quite fancy having a mechanical engine pounding away on the top of the cabinet; something like the one in Paul's Gemini Nixie Tube Clock shown above. However, I don’t want a real-world Steam engine — there's enough paper here in my office to support a major conflagration — whatever I use needs to be powered by an electric motor; any suggestions?

As another aside, while we're speaking of interesting engines, my chum Alan Winstanley in the UK just sent me a link to this video of an antique phonograph powered by a Stirling engine.

And, while we're on the topic of antique phonographs, I'd just like to say I'm constantly amazed by the ingenuity of the engineers of yesteryear. For example, have you seen this video of an 1906 Victor Auxetophone boasting mechanical (compressed-air) amplification?

But we digress… back to our Steampunk Nixie Tube Chronograph. What else should we include in this little beauty? One thing that immediately sprang to mind was one of those plasma bulb/ball thingamajigs. I was thinking that this could be mounted inside the cabinet facing out toward the front.


Plasma ball (Source: pixabay.com)

Actually, after penning the last paragraph, I ended up chatting with Paul in the UK (I only just now put the phone down). During our conversation I mentioned the plasma ball idea to Paul, and he responded with the following words of sage advice: “Don’t use a plasma ball.” Paul says that he's learned to his cost that these little scamps can cause all sorts of weird interference, like halving his system's clock frequency in one case, so let's scrub that idea.

Another thought is to have the insides of one of those geared clock whatchamacallits mounted behind a glass panel in the front of the cabinet.


Geared whatchamacallit (Source: Max Maxfield / Embedded.com)

The image above is from one I happen to have lying around my office (I know; what are the odds, eh?). I'm thinking of taking the plastic front panel off — and also removing the hour, minute, and second hands — and then mounting this inside the cabinet behind a glass face. Can you imagine seeing the gears slowly turning, illuminated from within by flickering red light.

I'd like to have a brass plate on top of the cabinet surrounding the Nixie tubes. Also, the gear mechanism would be accompanied by a matching brass bezel mounted to the front of the cabinet.

I had toyed with the idea of using a 3D printer to create these accoutrements and to then paint them to look like brass, but I knew in my heart-of-hearts that this wasn't the way to go. Happily, Paul pointed me at toward some more of his friends — Andy and Mandy Blackett, who own Engraving Studios. It seems that Paul creates vector drawings of the brass pieces he wants, and then Andy machines them out of brass sheets and engraves them as required. I think it's safe to say that Andy and Mandy can be expecting a call from yours truly in the not-so-distant future.

But wait, there's more… I thought that the only Nixie tubes around were relatively small ones that were a couple of inches tall and maybe 3/4″ in diameter. But it turns out that there's a tube called the Z568M that was made in East Germany in the 1960s. This is a giant amongst nixie tubes — it's 4-inches high (100mm) and boasts digits that are 2 inches (50mm) tall.

Furthermore, I was under the impression that no one was making Nixie tubes anymore, which meant we were obliged to scuffle around fighting over legacy stock (I hear that collectors can come to fisticuffs over a prime set of Z568Ms). But then Paul introduced me to Dalibor Farny from the Czech Republic. This hero is hand-crafting tubes that are pin-compatible with the Z568M.


Hand-crafted Nixie tubes (Source: Dalibor Farny)

Dalibor says that he personally finds the Z568M to be the most beautiful Nixie tube ever made, with its Vintage font, nice inner structure, eye-catching proportions. All of these features combined to prompt Dalibor to create his R|Z568M tubes, where the 'R' stands for “Resurrection.”

You don't think it can get any better than this? Well, it seems that Dalibor is creating a special set of R|Z568M tubes for Paul's current project. These beauties are going to have bronze bases and copper anodes. (OMG!!! I think I may have just wet myself had an unfortunate accident.)

Yes! You guessed it! Dalibor has agreed to make me a set of these tubes also. And there's yet more, because Pete at PV Electronics recently introduced this Nixie Tube Clock Kit that works with traditional Z568M tubes Z5680M and with Dalibor's R|Z568M creations.

So, with the electronics and the tubes sorted out, I can turn my attention to creating the most amazing cabinet ever. I'm open to suggestions as to the pseudo mechanical engine and any other cool stuff you think should go into this clock. I'm especially interested in suggestions for sourcing interesting brass accoutrements like the sprinkler head featured on Paul's Araminta Clock.

4 thoughts on “Creating a Steampunk Nixie Tube Clock

  1. “Maxn” is actually an antique fire extinguisher sprinkler head. Who would have thunk?”nnI recognised it immediately having worked in the industry for a while. See my recently revived blog “Unintended Consequences”nnhttp://www.planetanalog.com/a

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  2. “maxn”Can you imagine seeing the gears slowly turning, illuminated from within by flickering red light.”nnThis conjures up images of two movies with humans tied u in the gears, although the first “Modern Times” was in black and white. The second was

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  3. “Antedeluvian: “…having worked in the industry for a while…”nnI don't suppose you kept one as a souvenir that you would like to “donate to the cause”? LOL”

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  4. “I loved “Modern Times” — I never heard of “The Hudsucker Proxy” — in the case of Hugo, I remember the main story arc, and some of the sequences, but not as much as I'd like (sad face)”

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