Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Future Path Not Taken: The Magic of the Nixie Clock


I'm not technically-minded. I was never big into those 200-in-1 kits you got at Radio Shack. I was more into Transformers than Legos. My choice of toys marked me as a humanities geek from an early age. At the same time, I have a great love of technology-qua-technology. Especially forgotten or vintage technology. A couple of years ago someone I know linked to a YouTube video of an antique 1960s modem that still worked, and I fell in love:


So a couple of weeks ago I had occasion to go up to my company's internal IT department to request a new security key. Lo and behold the cubes are filled with all kinds of geek ephemera, and most notably, the dude I got my key from had a Nixie clock in his cube. I stared. And I probably looked like a dork in the process.

The Nixie tube is a perfect example of thoroughly obsolete technology that only exists today for aesthetic reasons. The Nixie had a very short shelf life; basically the 1960s. Once LEDs and LCDs were available for cheaper and smaller uses in calculators and watches, the Nixie was a dinosaur. So the Nixie display speaks of a very specific time and place: the last generation of computers before the microchip, the apotheosis of the vacuum tube.

About the best example of this I could give you is the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where Heywood Floyd and the other investigators are headed to the TMA-1 site on the Moon and their shuttle has a very prominent Nixie numerical display.


Sure, it dates the movie. But this sort of analog display also co-exists in a universe with flatscreen tablet computers and advanced AIs. It's a much cooler, better, more unexpected mashup of styles than steampunk. It's basically vacuumpunk.

Yeah, this kind of intentionally-archaic tech is pretty much my bread and butter. A few weeks ago I posted an image collage from Lost and the Swan Station is a great example of that 70s high-tech retro I love. There's definitely another post on this in the works, specifically about 2001 and how it kicked off a decade of gleaming white futuristic surfaces that eventually got grungier and grimier. But with that in mind, one last image from an iconic science fiction movie, where it's gleaming monochrome surfaces vs. cobbled-together space junk to get you thinking about this.


Luke's targeting computer's numerics... awfully reminiscent of a Nixie display, no?

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