nixie + twitter = twixie

Photo by Seth Snyder | Thanks Seth!

Three weeks ago, we opened our doors to the general public, and things have been picking up speed. There is a good deal of work being done in the wiki, and all kinds changes are being made out as we speak. As you probably know, there have been a few promotions going on around here, and at the end of this post you will find our biggest promotion yet.

A few months ago I set out to find a use for the nixie tube…

For those who do not know, the nixie tube (pictured above) was a precursor to the 7-segment LED display. But instead of simplifying things and making all numbers come from a series of seven lines, its creators wanted real typography, and not the stuff you could get with 2.5 volts, the kind that only a 170 volt neon tube could bring you. This is the nixie tube, a 170 volt neon tube where each number has its own cathode, which are all stacked on top of each other. So, 11 connections. You connect two, and the number 3 lights up, another two, and it lights up the number 9.

The orange glow is enough to drive a man mad from obsessing over it – but what to do with it? I wanted something that would be for bildr and, if possible, connect to the internet – doesn’t everything need to? So, I decided to do what any self-obsorbed site-creator would do: I was going to make a nixie display that showed the amount of twitter followers bildr had, and then recheck every 30 seconds.

I started by looking at existing projects and looking for kits that may be available for controlling the nixie tubes from an Arduino (my platform of choice). The problems you encounter when going to work with these tubes is that 1: they operate at 170 volts; 2: with 10 control pins per tube, you quickly run out of open pins on your Arduino; 3: they’re not exactly serial. BUT… I found a fix!

A company out of Canada called Ogi Lumen sells open-source parts for controlling nixie and neon tubes that solve all of these issues. They offer a 170v power supply (takes 7-12v in), and they have chainable boards that just plug in next to each other and connect to the Arduino, so if you want 2 or 12 digits, you are set. They even made an Arduino Library that allows you to just give it a number, and it will make it all happen for you. So I ordered a kit that would accommodate 4 tubes.

Because I’m a designer, sadly, I obsess over things I probably shouldn’t. In this case, it was the fact that the nixie tubes used in the Ogi kit are not how I envisioned this project looking. For that, I ordered this crazy kit from Ukraine that was from a war sub, or something, back when they were part of the Soviet Union. I kid you not, when I tell you this – the tubes in this kit were connected to wire that I’m pretty sure was wrapped in some sort of animal skin. Yes… you can buy the tubes separately, but I thought I would save time and money by buying them already mounted. DON’T DO THIS! It’s really not worth dealing with 30-year old animal parts to save a few bucks.

Oh… so this is where my need for a different look came back to bite me. The pins on the nixie tubes in the Ogi kit run counter-clockwise, 1-0. But the pins on the crazy animal-ridden tubes… they run clockwise. So 0 is 1, 9 is 2, 8 is 3, and so on. If that was not bad enough… because the Ogi kit tubes look up, when I attached my tubes to it, they were backwards, facing the back. All I need to do is turn it around, right? Well, yeah, this is what I did, but now digit 1 is digit 4, and 2 is 3, and so on, so our 160 followers (at the time) became 061. Basically, I had to re-do part of the library and re-order the write-out, all because I needed a different look. But it is so beautiful, right?

To control the tubes and connect to the internet, other than the awesome Ogi Lumen kit, I used Sparkfun’s Arduino pro and Seeed Studio’s ethernet shield. Then, I just tied into twitter’s API to grab all of bildr’s followers, and told the nixie tubes to display that number and repeat every 30 seconds. Funny, but the code and electronics was, by far, the easiest part (other than having wires keep breaking on me while prototyping) – the Ogi boards are very thick and make solder reworking harder.

Then, there is the case…. First, let me say this: I went to a school that has the most beautiful wood and metal shops you could imagine. I know how to properly hollow grind a chisel, I have built a 5in bearing out of aluminum using a metal lathe and bridgeport. But, after graduating, I had no more shop access, and it’s really sad. Thankfully, the people over at Ponoko are helping to ease that pain. If you don’t know Ponoko, you need to. They offer laser cutting service that is top notch, offering tons of different materials, and all with great prices, and they provide excellent service.

So, I opened Adobe Illustrator and started designing a box that would wrap around the electronics and sandwich everything together in a way that I could pull it apart when I wanted to change something. I designed a box one layer at a time and placed 1/8in holes in the corners of every piece to place alignment pins in so it would all just come together. About two weeks later, when I got the campfire-smelling package, I was floored. Everything came out so beautiful and clean. All of the pieces fit so well, and the ethernet jack must have had less than 2/1000th of an inch tolerance. It all just fit so perfectly.

But, after gluing the two halves together, I decided to take my box plane and smooth the sides a bit. Again, lacking a shop, the glue-up wasn’t 100% perfect with the lame clamps I had. But, doing this removed half of the burned edges and, again, being obsessed I decided to just go for it. I glued the two halves together (I guess fixing it is out of the question), and planed and sanded all four sides. Then, over the next three days, I did a process of wood fill (the sides of the material were almost sponge-like, not sure what it is), sand, paint, sand, fill, paint, and so on about six times until I had perfectly smooth, sharp-edged, perfectly black sides.

It took a lot of time to make it look great, but in the end I have the coolest looking twitter counter I have ever seen. It is really beautiful in person.

AND!!! You can interact with it by joining our twitter feed ( @bildr ). It checks the stats every 30 seconds, so let’s see how high we can get it.

So, now it’s your turn!!!!

This is what I did with four nixie digits and Ponoko laser cutting. What would you do? I want to hear it, and you may get to make it.

Thanks to Ogi Lumen and Ponoko, the person who comes up with the best idea will get:
Two (2) Ogi Lumen Nixie Duo and Nixie Driver Kits (tubes, controller boards, everything you need to connect to the Arduino (assembly required))
One (1) nixie power supply
$50 to Ponoko for materials and laser cutting (my box cost less than that, including shipping)

I will also help out with any other parts you need to make it happen (within reason)!

So, what are you going to make? Is it a random number generator using a geiger counter? Will it be a countdown to the next Star Wars convention? Is it your longitude on display at all times? Maybe it is a bluetooth display to show the last four digits of an incoming call. It could be anything.

If you have an idea, send us an email at, and let us know what it is. Also, let us know that you know how to make it happen and are comfortable working with a high power system. 170v isn’t a joke, and we want this to go to someone who will actually be able to put it together. Also, note that Ponoko is not available in all areas, and shipping is really expensive to some places, so location may play a small part in our decision.

We will be accepting entries until november 22nd, so get cracking!