Nostalgic, futuristic, and ironic all at once, Nixie tubes look like something plucked from the convoluted machinery of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or maybe a vintage McIntosh amp. In reality they’re relics of Cold War technology. The science is simple yet ingenious. Place a wire mesh anode and multiple cathodes in the shape of Arabic numerals in a delicate glass vessel. Then shoot some juice in the neon-filled tubes and… bazinga! The orange glow discharge, all fuzzy and warm, magically produces a precise digital readout.
During the mid-20th century, “Nixies” were an indispensable cog in America’s technological infrastructure. Scientific and military instruments, desktop calculators, elevator buttons, and stock tickers all relied on Nixie tubes to signal that the future had arrived — digital data for an analogue world. By the ’70s, though, they were obsolete, replaced by smaller, cheaper, more efficient LED semiconductors. But like vinyl LPs, typewriters, and Polaroid cameras, Nixies — repurposed as digital timepieces — are suddenly the height of geek chic.
Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak wears a Nixie wristwatch religiously. Apple fanboys have copied the look, making the bulky watch a techie status symbol. Nixie clocks, however, are the most ubiquitous manifestation of geek style for the Wired set. Take a tour of Silicon Valley offices and you’ll see Nixie clocks proudly displayed like shiny trophies beside family photos. There are steampunk Nixies, Machine Age Nixies, and even Nixies made from concrete blocks and Apple TVs. The persnickety design community has endorsed the minimalist Nixies from BDDW. The only thing more impressive than the aesthetic is the price: The company’s Donald Judd-inspired grandfather clock goes for $13,200. Those on a budget should consider an inexpensive DIY Nixie clock kit. Better yet, go full-Monty ironic and download a $.99 Nixie app.