Monday, October 12, 2009

ArduiNIX™ - Part 1

Back somewhere in the seventies, a high school science club took a field trip to a local laboratory. Somewhere during the tour, a young nerd found himself fascinated by an expensive frequency counter mounted in a rack. Instead of the analog meters in the frequency meters back at school, this one had glowing numbers! They were accurate to a single hertz and were changing as fast as the signal changed. It was wonderful! These digits, built from “nixie” tubes, were much faster and cheaper than mechanical numerals being used in the digital clocks, airplane cockpits, NASA consoles and space capsules of the day.

Nixie tubes were my first taste of the future. At the time, they were a bridge between the vacuum tubes of the last generation and the digital circuitry that was just becoming mainstream. These days they are no longer made in large quantities, but nixies of all varieties can be hunted down in surplus supply stores and are plentiful on eBay, shipped from old stock still available in Eastern Europe. Depending on the model, they are cheap, too.

For more information on nixie tubes, start at the Wikipedia article.

Nixie tubes have an esoteric niche in the modern DIY electronics milieu. Though definitely retro, they are too modern to fit in to the analog aesthetic of steampunk (for a marvelous example, see this wonderful steampunk/art deco Chronulator). Moreover, nixies require high voltage circuitry that can make them a challenge to interface with modern low-voltage electronics.

Now, with the availability of the ArduiNIX™ kit from Jeremy Howa and Bradley Lewis of RoboPirate, interfacing to nixie tubes is fun and easy. The ArduiNIX provides all you need to interface between an Arduino and up to eight nixie tubes of any variety. It includes its own high voltage power supply and interfacing circuitry and all fits neatly into a standard Arduino shield form factor.

In the next series of articles, we’ll go through the absolutely joyful process of building this kit, look into the circuit design, prototype up an eight digit nixie tube display, and write a few software routines to display interesting information and make the digits dance.

Oh, and sorry - there won’t be any clocks. With a clock in every phone, appliance, and trinket, the world doesn’t need any more clocks. Not even if they incorporate those fascinating, glowing, delightful digits of yore. Let’s see what else might be possible.

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