British Columbia·Photos

Building steampunk clocks from Soviet-era Nixie cold cathode tubes

Vancouver Island artist Kyle Miller has found a new use for an old technology, using aging cold cathode Nixie tubes to build displays for handmade, steampunk clocks.

Vancouver Island artist Kyle Miller says the old tubes create a 'captivating' display on his handbuilt clocks

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      Vancouver Island artist Kyle Miller has found a new use for an old technology, using Soviet-era​, cold cathode Nixie tubes to build displays for handmade, steampunk clocks.

      "The biggest appeal of a Nixie tube — it really captivates people when they see it — is the changing of the numbers," Miller told On The Island's Gregor Craigie.

      "Because each number is its own filament, but because the numbers are stacked inside each tube, it's not really what you would expect.

      "The filaments are actually stacked in order to not obstruct the view of the numbers in front, so it jumps around from forward to back. It's almost disconcerting a little bit when you see it."

      Nixie tubes — which resemble vacuum tubes — were mostly cast aside with the invention of the transistor in the 1940s, but were still used and manufactured by Soviet countries up until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.

      "The smaller variants you can still find. I quite often end up getting mine from Ukraine," said Miller.

      "Generally they're what's called new old stock — they've never been used but they have definitely been sitting in a factory untouched for 20, 30 years."

      Artist Kyle Miller says watching the numbers change can be captivating. (Kyle Miller)

      Miller said sometimes getting those tubes to his studio in Port Alberni, B.C. can be a challenge.

      "Right now getting anything out Ukraine is a little tricky ... You find one reliable source and them maybe that factory runs dry and you've got to go somewhere else."

      Miller put his first clock model on Kickstarter last year, offering models in black walnut, brass, copper and chrome — the project was funded in three days.

      This year, he built a different model, including more than 700 LED colours and GPS, and launched another Kickstarter campaign, which was funded within four days.

      To hear the full interview with Kyle Miller, click the audio labelled: Kyle Miller's Nixie clocks.


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