Vacuum tube watches

(shot with Olympus E-M1.2)

The problem with technology is that people take it for granted as something that has always been there. Hence, they have very little understanding of how it works. Like gravity, or the Sun. That’s why a simple collapse of the continental electrical grid would throw us all into the 19th century. No cell service, no Internet, not even artificial light.

Computers early in the 20th century were mechanical in nature with motors that flipped switches on or off to represent binary values. Think of the computer that Alan Turing created in Bletchley Park to break the German U-Boat Enigma code during World War 2. Fortunately the transistor was invented in 1947 which is a silicon semiconductor that can switch and amplify electrical signals. Modern computer chips are simply massive arrays of transistor switches lithographically etched at a microscopic level – typically 30 billion are found in a single chip but the count increases every year. So the computer has been made infinitely smaller, infinitely more reliable and requiring infinitely less electrical power.

Before transistors, there were vacuum tubes which used high voltage and heat to generate electrons to stream from the cathode to an anode grid inside an evacuated glass tube. They are nearly extinct except in the world of high end music amplifiers were vacuum tubes reproduce a superior sound to even the very best transistor based designs. Vacuum tubes also represent comforting retro steam punk symbology, they are easily visible components that can be easily replaced by hand and whose function is easily perceived by observing the orange glow of its filaments. Much like the distinction between an incandescent light bulb … and a light emitting diode.

I very recently discovered that this retro fondness for vacuum tubes has been extended to wrist watches since about 2016 when a Ukrainian company was able to take advantage of cheap stockpiles of ex military Soviet era vacuum tubes used in numerical displays. Their first watches utilized Nixie tubes which resemble vacuum tubes with the 10 number shaped anode filaments stacked in one column in a low pressure neon gas environment. Unlike vacuum tubes, there is no thermionic emission of electrons from the cathode as it remains unheated but the potential difference between the energized cathode causes a gas discharge glow of the selected anode numeral.

Early Nixoid nixie tube watch, as worn daily by Steve Wozniak. The stacked filaments of the ten digits are shown in the inset image. The smallest tubes are utilized in construction but to keep the size of the watch dial reasonable, typically the display shows only two digits – the hour and then the minutes are displayed sequentially.

I fondly remember seeing these displays on older equipment in my Dad’s biochemistry lab in the early 1970s. Nixie tubes were displaced by LEDs and LCDs but apparently not in the Soviet Union were they continued to be popular in their domestically fabricated military applications well into the 21st century which accounts for their large home grown surplus inventory of nixie tubes.

I was actually more interested in Nixoid‘s most recent watch model featuring VFDvacuum fluorescent displays. These are true vacuum tubes with a hot cathode emitting electrons and multiple phosphor coated anodes representing segments of a digit. The display is characteristically bright and sharp.

Nixoid VFD watch. To allow the USB rechargeable lithium battery to have a reasonable duration, the display is only momentarily energized when the time is sought by the wearer.
Nixoid VFD watch. To allow the USB rechargeable lithium battery to have a reasonable working life, the display is only momentarily energized when the time is sought by the wearer.

The dark display can be energized by pressing a button or by triggering the built in accelerometer. Shown with stock metal band replaced with NATO style strap.

The 1982 film Blade Runner was initially criticized for being difficult to comprehend by those who had not read the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.   This problem was resolved when all the scenes left on the cutting room floor to reduce running time were restored.   The brilliant imagery of a dystopian and environmentally ravaged Los Angeles of the near future as conceived by director Ridley Scott assured that this film would remain in the cinematic consciousness until the day its genius would be publically acknowledged, as it has.    The VFD watch is naturally at home in this universe.
For decades, little to nothing was known about Deckard’s firearm despite frame by frame analyses of its short screen time. This is understandable since the plot is not about retiring replicants but the definition of life. The combat scenes were not iconic in the manner that made lightsabers and phasers signature weapons of Star Wars and Star Trek.  Still it had seized the curiosity of fans because it looked like there was some sort of bolt action lever attached to a twin barrelled revolver with electronics. Finally in 2006 the original movie prop was found and sold at auction and fans could finally learn the truth. It is known as the LAPD M2019 Pflager Katsumata-D Detective Special. PKD in honor of Phillip K. Dick.

IN12 Nixie tube clock in action.

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