Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Techy Tuesday - Something Old, Something New

In the days before today's ubiquitous seven-segment LEDs, there were ways of doing electronic digital displays.  One of the most common displays were Nixie tubes, developed in 1955 by a small vacuum tube manufacturer and still popular to this day.  In a scenario that will be repeated thousands of times in the history of high tech industries, the innovative small company developed the tube, then computer giant Burroughs Corporation (now Unisys) bought them and introduced the innovation to the market. 
The name Nixie was derived by Burroughs from "NIX I", an abbreviation of "Numeric Indicator eXperimental No. 1."[7] Hundreds of variations of this design were manufactured by many firms, from the 1950s until the 1990s.
Nixie tubes ruled the display world from the late 1950s until the 1970s when LED displays took over the market space, but they are surprisingly popular with a part of the techy population today.  Some folks just love that retro look.  Just search the term "Nixie tube clock" with your favorite search engine or on eBay and see how many come up!

An email at work today led to this Kickstarter project, called the Smart Nixie Tube, that combines the retro look of the Nixie tube with today's hot experimenters' toy, the Arduino microprocessor experimenters' boards.  The modular concept allows you string a number of these together to make displays with a large number of tubes. 

The multiple colors used as base lighting are created by programming the balance of a multicolor (RGB) LED in the base.   

Personally, this is a bit too "artsy" for me, and "vintage" stuff that's just there to be vintage doesn't really appeal to me, but ... they are nice looking and I can see the sense in learning to program them.  Go read the Kickstarter page and watch the video.  It's cool - and the whole idea behind Techy Tuesday is to show things that strike me as cool or even educational.


  1. Just hope the "Solid-State" kiddies don't get zapped by the ~180 Volt cathode supply!

  2. Dammit SiG, you got me hooked on the Arduino stuff, and now this.

    bill in VA

  3. Recently finished reading this from ARRL, enjoyed it.

    Only two PICAXE projects, the rest are Arduino or variations. Two clever ways to encode a Morse Code character in a single byte that tickled me. The book mentions an Argent Data Systems Radio Shield which seems to be an APRS-specific (or at least AX.25 UI frame restricted) TNC-like thingie. I think; I only glanced at the vendor's writeup.

    I have a few projects in mind, but it looks like a mix of RasPi (for the speed and memory) and Arduino (for digital and analog capabilities) might be the more realistic approach. Lots of pins, voltages, and capabilities/restrictions to keep in mind there. The economics of it kind of startled me. An Arduino with ether costs a lot more than a RasPi.

    I still long to hear of a functional spread-spectrum project. At this point, it's almost irrelevant whether it's Part 15 or ham. I'm somewhat tempted to rub a microcontroller up against a FT-817 and see if I can get a spark on 70cm. Just for yucks. The hopping speed will probably stink out loud, but it's an interesting idea. It would be interesting to see whether using CAT to pull the frequencies out of memory or VFO swapping and reloading would be faster.

    Idle late night Techy Tuesday thoughts.


    1. Thanks for mentioning that arduino/Pic book. I've been meaning to look into starting with those toys. Maybe I'll order that.

      Spread spectrum is running everyday in ham radio - you're just not noticing it. It's not frequency hopping, it's direct sequence. There has been some 56k packet radio set up in Atlanta, the Valley in California, and a few other places with critical mass of engineer/nerds. I'm honestly not sure it's still up and running.

      The problem with Spread Spectrum with something like your FT-817 (I used to have one - nice little radio) is that you're limited to the audio BW you can get through it. That limits your speed and throughput. If you wanted to run fast data, like that 56k (and 56k just isn't fast these days) you need more RF bandwidth. Forget about using a low frequency rig, or really anything with audio input. Enter the 2.4 gig WiFi band - which is shared with amateur radio. There's a good sized population of hams messing around with it.

      You might find this page on modifying consumer WiFi for amateur use interesting.

      Likewise, you might find it interesting that some hams set an "unamplified" DX record of 125 miles with slightly modified boxes.

  4. The DSSS vs FHSS difference is something I hadn't considered before. Thanks, it's always good to learn something new.

    The modifying consumer WiFi URL was very interesting. I tracked down a few other pages at the same site, and watched some of his YouTube channel videos as well.

    Who I can get to come play with interesting tech was mostly why I picked the FT-817; the people I might convince all have one. After reading the WiFi material, what does catch my fancy are the 420 MHz ideas with 5 MHz bandwidth. I think some of the locals might be convinced to come play with that if it's cheap enough (read VERY cheap).

    You're right, with audio bandwidths you're doing well to get even as much as 9600 bps, and then you need access to the discriminator. In part, one of the reasons for the decline of packet radio around here was the local hams just wouldn't spend money to go faster than 1200 bps. At that speed, a lot of things just aren't possible and long packet transmit times can quickly dump a busy channel into congestive collapse. Throw some 9600 bps users on the same channel and neither group can reliably tell when the channel is busy.

    As appealing as the 2.4 GHz Part 97 setup is, I am in a microwave sinkhole. Even 1.2 GHz is all but impossible. Putting something up on a well situated hill might serve, but that's a longer term proposition. Nevertheless, I did enjoy reading about the 2.4 GHz options and I might just have to fool around with it at home by myself. The Ubiquiti Networks and Doodle Labs offerings look promising.

    I enjoyed the microwave DX record article. Who doesn't like more ERP from antenna gain rather than RF amps? You only pay for aluminum once, you keep paying for amplifiers. Speaking of ERP, did you notice this page? I just had to chuckle about 1500 w at 5.7 GHz with a 28 dBi gain antenna producing 946 kw. Of course, coming up with 1.5 kw at 5.67 GHz is pretty impressive in and of itself. That's tough for most hams even for 2m.

    Thanks for the great reading material and your comments. It gave me a lot of ideas to pursue. I've read about some of the hsmm-mesh networks in other locations, but there's nothing like that around here. I hope to get something started locally, and 420 MHz may be just the ticket ... albeit with wider bandwidths as you suggest.