Art and Technology are Friends

Nixie Clocks – Early Designs

Nixie Clock with Arduino
I got my first Nixie tubes in early 2016 and started experimenting. I didn’t know anything about then at the time, but quickly realized that they were pretty simple devices to use.

Only part that needed developing was the high voltage power supply. I did not want to use mains AC as the power source, and ideally wanted to use 5V DC so that the clock can be powered from USB.

After a bit of research I found that most of the high voltage power supply designs use boost converter driven by a PWM controller IC. A large MOSFET switching a good size inductor. Those designs looked a bit overkill to me, so I started designing my own from scratch.

Since I’m familiar with transistor based blocking oscillator circuit to boost voltage, I wanted to see if I can use similar circuit. The switching transistor has to withstand the output voltage of 180V so I picked some high voltage transistors and experimented. Turned out that typical high voltage transistors (C-E breakdown of more than 200V) were too wimpy for the purpose, and the simple two transistor circuit that I was using was not capable of very high duty cycle demanded by high input/output voltage ratio (I’d estimate close to 99%).

One way to reduce requirement for the boost converter is to add voltage multiplier at the output. I added a 3 stage Cockcroft–Walton multiplier to a circuit using pretty ordinary (inexpensive) transistors. This circuit was able to provide required voltage and up to around 3 to 4 mA of driving current to medium sized Nixie like IN-12.

While this power supply was not quite powerful enough for larger Nixie tubes, I went ahead and designed a clock circuit to get my feet wet.

First design was a 4 digit clock using ATMEGA328 – I wanted to make the software easy to develop, so I loaded Arduino boot-loader. I also wanted to use the clock as a multipurpose numerical display so I added a V-USB port.

Nixieduino rev.1
This prototype had some stupid bugs, but the basic functions such as multiplexing worked. I made a revision of this prototype right after.
Second Nixie clock prototype
Nixieduino rev2 schematics
Here I experimented with a tapped inductor to effectively double the boost converter output voltage and do away with voltage doubler instead of tripler.

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