[From the June 1973 issue of Scientific American magazine, pages 66 and 67,
written by Alan Sobel (at the time the article was written he was a member of the research
department of Zenith Radio Corporation).]
What was needed was a means of displaying a number "in line" rather than
scattered up and down several columns.
Of the devices that were designed in the mid-1950's to meet this requirement
the most successful was a gas-discharge device called the Nixie tube. At
the time the Nixie tube was introduced it was not at all certain that it
would become the dominant digital device for electronic instruments.
There were two major competitors: incandescent lamps and electroluminescent
numbers. There were several ways in which incandescent lamps could be
driven from the outputs of vacuum-tube counters, and the lamps could be used
to illuminate masks or to edge-light plastic panels to produce a number
display. The circuitry required to power these displays was more complicated
and more costly than what was needed for the Nixie tube. Moreover, the
incandescent indicators themselves were relatively expensive. The
electroluminescent numbers were made from powdered phosphors that emit light
when they are subjected to an electric field. Unfortunately the early
electroluminescent lamps had a short and unpredictable lifetimes and they
gradually faded as serious competitors to the Nixie tube.
The name Nixie came about accidentally. A draftsman making drawings of the tube
it NIX 1, for numeric indicator experimental No. 1. His colleagues
began referring to it as "Nixie," and the name stuck. The tube contains 10 metal
cathodes, each shaped to form a different number. The cathodes are insulated
from one another and are stacked one behind the other. The anode is a metal mesh.
The entire assembly is in a glass bulb that contains neon gas with a small amount
of mercury. When an electric potential of about 180 volts is applied between the
anode and any cathode, the gas near the cathode breaks down and emits light. With
a proper choice of gas pressure and cathode dimensions almost all the light comes
from the immediate vicinity of the energized cathode, and the result is a
luminous orange-red number.
The Nixie tube was first marketed commercially in 1956. It is still sold by its
originator, the Burroughs Corporation, and by Burroughs' licensees in many countries.
It is available in a variety off sizes and is widely used in measuring instruments
of all kinds and in office equipment such as calculators and copying machines.
This tube has been successful because it is reliable and has a long lifetime.
Because it is a familiar device to design engineers the Nixie tube continues to be
sold in large numbers.
The voltages to operate Nixie tubes are provided by circuits called drivers.
Originally Nixie tubes were designed to be driven by vacuum tubes, which themselves
operate at high voltages. Modern integrated circuits, however, operate at very low
voltages, and interface circuits are required to drive Nixie-tube displays. These
driving circuits are readily available from a number of sources, but the need for
interface circuits, which provide a high voltage, is one reason why the Nixie tube is
George and Zoltan Haydu were great entrepreneurs, good inventors,
genuine Hungarian patriots,
and a part of
northern New Jersey's industrial history. George
even got shot in NYC by the Hungarian Secret police while leading an
anti-Communist parade, and kept on marching. Great men, both. They did
not, however, invent the numerical indicator tube based on gas discharge
The Haydu Brothers made a lot of odd tubes for others, and developed many
innovative products until being bought out by Burroughs in 1954 and
moved to Plainfield, New Jersey from nearby Warren, New Jersey.
In their work, the Haydu Brothers employed a number of tube designers,
mostly experienced men from New Jersey's cradle of American electron tube
manufacture in Essex and Hudson Counties: DeForest, DuMont, RCA, and
other area tube firms notably including National Union. The latter was
formed in a survival-driven merger of Magnatron (Hoboken, New Jersey), Marathon
(also of Hoboken), Sonatron (NYC) and Televocal (West New York, New Jersey)
in 1929, as none were previously RCA licensees.
RCA was using its huge patent portfolio to kill off competitors in the
tube industry, as well as in all other areas of electronic entertainment.
Usually the litigation resulted in payment of back royalties, seizure
of assets and/or bankruptcy, so the four little aforementioned firms
acquiesced, joined to form National Union (NU), and acquired a single
RCA license. It appears that RCA lawyers had a hand in putting the
National Union made very good tubes and had a decent development
shop. Hygrade-Sylvania might have been bigger and in some ways, superior,
but NU was fairly clever, and sometimes beat RCA to market with new
types. They made a lot of tubes for the war effort, second-sourcing RCA,
Somewhere in the early post WW-II period, the need for electronic
numerical indicators became apparent; the existing electromechanical
registers weren't suitable:
NU came up with the
Inditron tube (also linked from
here, way down their list).
I wholly disagree with their statement that the G-10 was developed in
the 1930s, as RCA hadn't even yet developed the T-6-1/2 noval 9-pin base
upon which the G-10 sits. (The noval was a postwar outgrowth of RCA's
pioneering 7-pin-through glass (T5-1/2 bulb) design first developed just
before the war for portable radios... The noval base was released in 1948
to accommodate more complex / multi-section tubes, and became an industry
standard. NU was licensed to use it, of course) Accordingly, I place the
G-10 no earlier than 1948, although it is likely that some flying-lead
experimental devices might have been built a year or two earlier.
I've seen G-10s in the hands of other tube collectors, and own a couple
of ancient INDITRON variants (NIB) called G1-045A, here. Both are marked
"Research Division, NU", patents pending. The green, black and white
box is likely late 1940s, and has handwritten type numbering. These
displays are in T6-1/2 bottles on 10-pin bases, with no keying, just a
yellow paint mark for the user to abide by when installing the tube. Easy
No center pin in these, like the G-10 has, but rather an exhaust
tubulation is there instead. That makes me think the G1-045A was designed
to avoid the side tubulation, but I've not been able to establish which
tube came first. My guess is that mine are lab variants, designed to
use conventional tube envelopes and manufacturing equipment, including
rotary Sealex machines. These look like very elongated Nixie tubes,
missing the front mesh, and having lots of painted on insulation on
the internal wiring to the various cathanodes. Trouble is, they needed
a special 10-pin socket, and I've never, ever seen any of those.
The pre-Haydu tube most often cited is the National Union GI-10, not
G-10 (sic) as I'd written. Perhaps "GI" might mean "gas indicator".
After going downstairs and finding the carton with little gas bottles,
sure enough the ones I have might well be GI-054A, and not G1-045A,
but that is difficult to say for sure. The stamped yellow ink isn't very
clear, and that is understandable as these are certainly handmade toys
from time when the earth was still flat.
The NU INDITRONs seem quite difficult to find. In 40 years I've only seen
a half dozen or so, including the ones here. Mine came unsolicited in a
heap of postwar tube cartons from the estate of a good friend who liked
tube audio, old radios and musclecars. I am certain that he never
even noticed them, much less cared what they were. Sadly, all the NU
2A3 and NU 50 boxes were empty...
Given the close knit tube-design community in this area, one might expect
the Haydu Brothers were well acquainted with NU's designs, and improved
by adding a front cathode mesh to make driving the numerals simpler.
Haydu often took R&D products and productized them for others, including
RCA, in an early form of outsourcing. Who knows what went on between NU,
Haydu and Burroughs? Government (AEC) money may have been involved,
but that is just conjecture that needs discussion within the
Tube Collectors Assocation.
Also by 1952 or so NU was getting out of vacuum tubes to become more
diversified, and I have no information regarding patent issues, but
suspect that Haydu must have legitimately acquired some rights to the
underlying design and manufacturing technology. (NU, in 1965 bought
Emerson TV & Radio, who had previously acquired the DuMont name. All
were fine area companies, and I knew people who worked at each of them.)
Patent 2,142,106, Signaling System and Glow Lamps Therefor, was filed on
May 9, 1934 and awarded on January 3, 1939. The inventor is listed
as Hans P. Boswau from Galion, Ohio. (Mr. Boswau appears to have been
the chief engineer of the Lorain County Radio Corporation and the
Lorain Telephone Company during the 1930s.)
From the patent:
This invention relates to signaling devices and more specifically
to glow lamp indicators for selectively signaling numerals, letters
or other characters or symbols.
The patent describes the operation of the device:
In the well-known space discharge devices or glow lamps, a pair of metallic
electrodes are sealed within a glass bulb filled with neon, mercury, sodium
or other suitable gases at a definite very low pressure. When a unidirectional
(direct current) potential is applied to the electtrodes and gradually increased,
the glow discharge will set in at a certain definite potential called an
"igniting potential." The luminous glow discharge is produced by negative
electrons and positive gas ions and takes place within a certain small distance
from the exposed surface of the cathode or negative electrode, which appears
to be surrounded or coated with a thin film of light. This film of light
follows the contours of the cathode surface in all details.
When the potential is further increased, thbe glow discharge becomes somewhat
brighter. When the potential is gradually reduced, the glow discharge is
maintained down to a potential considerably below the igniting potential,
until at a certain definite minimum potential the discharge ceases.
If an intermediate potential somewhere between the igniting and minimum
potential is applied to the electrodes, there will be no glow discharge,
but if the potential is momentarily raised to or above the igniting potential
and thereafter reduced to the intermediate potential, the discharge
will be started by the igniting potential and thereafter be maintained
by the intermediate potential until the potential is reduced to or below the
minimum potential. This characteristic of the glow lamp makes it possible
to control the starting and stopping of the glow discharge by means of
brief momentary impulses of high and low potentials, with the lamp
normally connected to an intermediate potential.
Thus, the glow lmap may be lighted by the application of an igniting impulse
and thereafter remains lit, until the potential is reduced momentarily
below the minimum potential. This feature offers a means to control glow
lamps without external holding relays or other means for keeping the
lamp circuit closed with it is desired to have the lamp glow.
The fact that the exposed parts of the cathode of a glow lamp are entirely
surrounded by a thin film of luminous discharge may be utilized to display
any desired character by means of properly shaped cathodes. A cathode
consisting of a wire shaped in the form of the numeral 1 will, when ignited,
produce a luminous outline of the numeral 1, and similarly any other desired
character may be formed.
The patent also describes a stock quotation system using a coding scheme
adapted to the use of these numeric gas discharge tubes as the display device.
A NEW ALPHA-NUMERIC DISPLAY DEVICE USING COLD CATHODE GLOW DISCHARGE
[From IRE 1963 International Electron Devices Meeting]
J. T. Boyer
Electronic Components Division
Plainfield, New Jersey
Development of a unique alpha-numeric display is achieved with a device
incorporating several new techniques in an unusual construction. This paper
discusses human engineering aspects, choice of materials, fabrication,
processing and manner of evaluation.
The abnormal glow characteristics of a cold cathode, neon gas discharge
are used in presenting an alpha numeric display of high light intensity.
Thirteen cathode segments are mounted "on edge" providing a single
plane display with a wide viewing angle and a character shape which is
continuous rather than sharply segmented. The continuity of stroke is achieved
by utilizing the "glow overlap" phenomena. Sputtering of the cathode
material in abnormal glow region is a function of the gas, pressure, and
cathode material. Shielding precautions required to overcome the problem of
sputtering are described.
Also discussed are: 1) Techniques to obtain ultra long life. 2) Effect of
spaacing variation on cathode glow uniformity, and 3) Evaluation of the tube
in terms of its application.
A NEW NUMERICAL INDICATOR TUBE, NIXIE
From IRE Transactions on Electron Devices, volume 4, issue 2 (1957):
H. Hampel, Burroughs Research Center, Paoli, Pennsylvania,
S. Kuchinsky and T. Peterson, Burroughs Corporation Electronic Tube Division, Plainfield, New Jersey
The development of a new electronic numerical indicator by the Burroughs
Research Center and the ELectronic Tube Division of Burroughs is described.
The new numerical indicator, "Nixie," is a 10-digit gas indicator
tube which provides an essentially two-dimensional in-line numerical readout
with a wide angle viewing characteristic. The tube is approximately 1" in
height and diameter, mounted on a 13 pin stem. The numerical assembly
comprises ten "cathodes" configurated to represent the ten basic
digits with a common anode. The cathodes may be selectively energized.
The resultant gas discharge will make only the selected number distinctly
visible to the observer.
The numerical design will be illustrated with the configurations obtained
after considerable study in human engineering and standards on character
recognition. A unique method of fabrication results in parts tolerances and
angular accuracies not readily feasible with standard die techniques. To
achieve both an optically free viewing end and a plug-in stem, the standard
receiving tube method of tubulation has been modified by an advance production
technique to be described.
The compact structure inherently encourages uniform electrical characteristics
and predictable firing and sustaining voltages. The number design and assembly
obtains a high figure of merit relative to light output with a minimum of power
consumption. This new component opens up many applications in combination with
other electronic devices such as tubes, transistors and magnetic cores.
From the Journal of the Franklin Institute, volume 263 issue 4 (1957):
NIXIE - Electronic Read-Out Tube
The first mass-produced all-electronic "read-out" tube is now in
volume production at Burroughs Corporation's Electronic Tube Division,
Plainfield, N.J., the Company has announced. The tube, known as NIXIE,
is described as a small, low-cost electron device which converts
electronic signals directly to readable characters. It contains all the
numeric digits, any one of which can be selected and displayed in a common
viewing area. It can be triggered by Beam Switching Tubes or any suitable
voltage source requiring approximately 1/4 watt.
Applications for the NIXIE tube include computer read-out, industrial
control, electronic instrumentation, military electronic control, and
Unusually good readability is said to result from design features which
provide a wide viewing angle and sharply defined digit contours. Other
advantages claimed for the NIXIE are compactness, and a rugged construction
capable of meeting military requirements for shock, vibration, and
According to the manufacturer, the NIXIE uses a minimum of power,
circuitry and components and is inexpensive to install and maintain. It
is believed by Burroughs to be the simplest all-electronic method of
performing the read-out function.
From E. Valdes, Notes and Queries, volume S11-X, issue 252, October 24, 1914:
American Slang: "Nixie"…
In Mrs. Gertrude Atherton's 'Perch of the Devil' I notice nixie used
frequently for "no." The book is concerned with an American mining
town, and I presume that the word is current in mining slang. I do not
remember it in the mining dialect of Mark Twain and Bret Harte, and it does
not appear in Mr. R. H. Thornton's admirable 'American Glossary.'
Is it recent in origin? I presume that it is only an enlarged form of nix,
which, the picturesque language of Joseph Knight reminded his friends,
means "nothing." Nixies in the U.S. mean, according to the
'N.E.D.,' postal matter which cannot be forwarded because it is not properly
addressed. Could this special use have led to the simpler meaning? Miners are
full of strange metaphor, and one remembers the lingo of billiards and cards used
in Mark Twain's 'Innocents at Home' by people who wished to say simply that
they did not understand what was said. For instance, "You've banked your
ball outside the string" means "I fail to comprehend your remark."