HackSpace magazine

Meet the Maker: Dalibor Farny

By Andrew Gregory. Posted

Nixie tubes are fascinating things. They glow with the light of a bygone age, an obsolete technology that pulls the imagination to the 1950s and 1960s. There are plenty of second-hand units knocking about on eBay, but if you want them new, there’s only one person in the world making them: Dalibor Farny, in his factory in a castle in the Czech Republic.

“A Nixie tube is a display for numerical data,” he says. “If you look now at Nixie tubes, it’s quite a strange way to display numbers, because we use so many types of numerical displays, like LCD displays and all this fancy stuff. It’s quite alien technology for displaying numbers. But if you take it from the historical point of view, when Nixie tubes were invented, there were not so many ways to display numerical data.

“Nixie tubes were first commercially produced in the 1950s, and at this time they were one of the few ways to display digital data; all the other display types were analogue, with a moving needle. Production of Nixie tubes started because there was a sudden need for displaying digital data, as it was at roughly the same time that the transistor was invented and there was this spark of binary or digital data, but they had no good way of displaying numbers. Instead of printing them to paper, they needed something more practical.

“There are several patents from the 1930s covering the same principle, but the first commercial production started in 1954, and the first factory or first group of people who started making Nixies was from Hungary. They were two brothers, their name was Haydu, and they were soon acquired by Burroughs (which was a company at this time located in the USA, in New Jersey). After Burroughs started manufacture, the technology spread worldwide.

“At this time, Russian and Eastern European countries had their own production facilities. They didn’t pay patent royalties; they just started up on their own.

END OF AN ERA

“In the 1980s the Nixie tube was cancelled in most of the factories, because there were LEDs and LCDs, but in Russia, it was still running until 1993. I’m not sure why they continued running so long with the technology, but they manufactured Nixie tubes ten years after it was stopped anywhere else. They were making tubes with no market for them, so they produced the tubes just to go into storage.

“After around 2005, there was this boom in interest in Nixie tubes, so people in Russia and Ukraine began to search through the old stock and started selling them online, in huge quantities and at prices that are significantly below the cost of production – even below the cost of manufacturing them back then in Russia.

“I’d never heard of Nixie tubes before about 2011, when I accidentally found them on the internet.

“I was born into the digital era and had never seen anything like vacuum tubes used for displays. It was just really exciting technology. I started searching and gathering data about how they work, and the history was very exciting for me. When I learned that they were no longer produced, I was tempted to try it for myself – they’re so beautiful that I had to resurrect them.

“Before this, I was a programmer. I spent seven years writing software. It was an easy life, but it wasn’t fulfilling. I like to work with my hands, so I knew I didn’t want to do it forever. I came across an account on Flickr, the website for sharing photos, showing high-speed photos. There was a photographer doing things with a special flash so that the photo looked like a frozen explosion. I tried to do this myself and was looking for a gas mixture for the flash. From this search, I found Nixie tubes. All the camera flash things went in a box in the cellar, and I started working on Nixie tubes instead.

WORKING IN A CASTLE

“The factory is located in a castle with 1 m thick walls. We have roughly 250 square metres of space inside. It’s in a small village, and there’s no budget to do anything with it – in a bigger city, it would be an art gallery or something like that. They’re just happy there’s a company in there paying the rent. I like it, but it’s impractical on a few levels. It’s humid; it’s cold, there’s no loading or unloading bays. But it’s the closest place to my home, and it’s the lowest rent around, so it was a sound business decision.

“When I started, I spent two or three years gathering information and trying to set up the highest-quality manufacturing possible – purity of materials, purity of the gas in the tubes, the best equipment, so we can produce the best Nixie tubes ever. There were problems at first, of course. The first batch of maybe around 50 Nixie tubes started to fail after around a year, so we had to take them back from customers, analyse the problem, find the solution, and prevent problems in the future.

“Now we have roughly a 4% fail rate, and we’re constantly bringing that down. When you read the theory, it sounds simple, but the reality is that it’s much more difficult than it first looks. We work constantly on quality inspections, on the things that we make and on the materials that we get from suppliers.

“If we were a bigger company with 20 engineers, then setting up the roles for this would be easy, but we’re just three people in production. It’s quite a challenge to set up the processes so that they run consistently.

“We only make one type of Nixie tube, plus a separator for use in clocks – it lights up like a colon to separate hours, minutes, and seconds. I’ve started working on a slightly smaller type of tube that we’ll be able to offer at a lower price to the customer.

“Our customers are interested in technology – some people buy paintings for their wall; our customers buy a technical piece of art. I think they appreciate the fact that someone is keeping old technology alive and they want to support us.

“We make everything by hand, which sounds cool, but it’s partly because we didn’t have the machines to do things for us, in particular, the glass-work. In 2019 there are no companies making machine tools for making Nixie tubes, so we’ve been looking for old machine tools in archives of Nixie tube manufacturers. Most of these machines went to scrap, but they’re rare anyway because only a few of them were ever sold. With the smaller tube, I’ve managed to find a machine to help me produce this new tube. I only found the contact to get in touch with the person who had this machine because I was already producing Nixies by hand, and the community helped me find this man who had a machine who sold it to me because he wanted to see it in operation, rather than gathering dust. Thanks to the first generation of our Nixie tubes, I’ll be able to produce the second generation.”

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