The magic of Nixie tubes
Updated: Jan 28, 2021
My first encounter with Nixie tubes was in an newspaper article many years ago. It was
love at the first sight for this electronic device: The pleasant warm orange light felt like a reminiscent of the archaic elemental force of fire, which creates light, warmth, sensuality and magic. The tubes are surrounded by an aura of mystery: their retro character would make them particularly suitable for serving as a technical protagonist in a machine from Jules Verne's fantasy novels of the late nineteenth century. It's not for nothing that Nixie Tubes are loved by the steampunk movement. Steampunks combine modern technology and ancient devices to create bizarre works of art and celebrate a paradoxical world that is a mixture of Victorian industrialization, science fiction and World of Warcraft.
The technical structure of a Nixie tube is simple and can be compared to the function of a neon tube: ten cathodes (for the numbers 0 to 9 - or even letters and symbols) and an anode in the form of a mesh or cage that surrounds the numerical metal wires are located in a glass tube. Once a single number is electrically charged it glows orange, thanks to the electricity and the neon gas contained inside the bulb.
The origin and purpose of those electronic components were in fact purely practical, used
in the 1960s and 1970s for displaying digits in measuring devices and computers.
The story of the Nixie Tube starts with the Hungarian emigrant family around George, Zoltan and John Haydu who flet with the concept of an industrially produced Nixie display from the Horthy Government to the United States in the 1950s. Their cold-cathode display production gained contracts with the United States military in 1954 and was sold a year later to Burroughs Corporation, an experienced computing company which allowed a large-scale production. Burroughs invented the name ”Nixie“ as an abbreviation for "Numeric Indicator eXperimental No I“. The technology was used in everything from elevators to supercomputers.
A couple of years later the Soviets started their own production of Nixie tubes in USSR (IN-1 to IN-19) and in their socialistic Brother States GDR (ZXXXM) and Poland (Dolam). For more than 30 years the Soviet Union produced more Nixie tubes than any country in the world and used them as an alternative to LEDs (produced since the late 1960s) in military and industry equipment. While Western countries had soon access to new display technologies, the Soviet Union used and produced cold-cathode displays until the fall of the iron curtain in 1990. No wonder: Today most Nixie tubes bought by collectors are coming from Ukraine, after sitting there in storages for more than three decades.
When the first drafts of the Value Manifesto were done, it was clear that we would need a digit-only display to show the value of the art editions. While there were plenty of possibilities for display solutions, it proved to be much more challenging finding a medium from the past, exclusively developed to display numbers. The design of the Nixie tubes was intriguing us in their aesthetical simplicity.
We calculated a required quantity of at least a few hundred units for the placement of a multiple in a small three-digit edition size and embarked on a search for a possible source for IN-14 (ИН -14) or IN-18 (ИН -18) tubes from Soviet production. Yet, we quickly noticed in conversation with dealers that not only the availability wasn’t given, but also the lifespan of the individual tubes was only a few thousand hours: a KO criteria for the medium Nixie tube. Large numeric LED were an alternative for the project but aesthetically boring; and split-flap displays (those from the large airport and railway station displays). But: Their leaflets were designed for the display of the alphabet (plus numbers, empty spaces and additional signs). The money and time needed to modify the split flap displays of the SBB (Swiss Railway) would have been way out of proportion.
In late 2016 a hint from a software developer brought us back to the Nixie tube. We had learned that the Czech inventor Dalibor Farný had started producing a new series of Nixie tubes in his workshop in 2013. Mattthias and I flew to Vienna and were picked up there by Dalibor who brought us to the village of Březolupy where his manufactory is based in an old Morovian castle. We learned in his manufactory: what was once used as a mass-market numerical display for scientific instruments has nowadays become a luxury item - manually produced with greatest care, much better quality and durability.
Dalibor Farný’s Nixie tube R|Z568M has a fascinating aesthetic, a long lifetime span and can easily be reproduced in quantities needed for the Value Manifesto project. The name of R|Z568M relates to one of the nixie tubes made back in the GDR in the 1960’s – a Z568M. The R in its name means resurrection. Farny wanted to pay tribute to old engineers from RFT company who chose this name and he decided to keep it, so together it makes “R|Z568M”. The original Z 568 M was manufactured in Eastern Germany by RFT (Rundfunk- und Fernmelde-Technik). Farny personally states this tube to be the most beautiful nixie tube ever made: Vintage font, nice inner structure, eye-catching proportions. This video is showing the different steps of the production: The Art of Making a Nixie Tube
Each of our 250 editions consist of seven R|Z568M tubes - every single tube is carefully assembled, tested and handnumbered. And we are still fascinated by their magical aura every day.