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Open Source Russian Vacuum Fluorescent Tube Clock 155

Posted by kdawson
from the ice-blue dept.
ptorrone writes "Hacker extraordinaire Ladyada (whose open source hardware projects we have discussed before) has just published a complete how-to, with design document, on making your own open source Russian vacuum fluorescent clock. The vacuum fluorescent tubes aren't as dangerous as (high-voltage) Nixie tubes, and there seem to be more of them available in the world. If you're not interested in building a clock from scratch, you can also pick up a kit version. All the schematics, source code, and files are available on the project's page."
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Open Source Russian Vacuum Fluorescent Tube Clock

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  • It has software? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I've built Nixie clocks, and there shouldn't be any software involved at all. You can get clock ICs cheaply enough, a microprocessor is overkill for this kind of project.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Locutus (9039)
      but it's hackable and they even saved a few bucks by using the microcontroller to create the HV to run the tube.
      The microcontroller is an atmega168, just like what's in the Arduino but I didn't see if it was straight C or Arduino code.

      LoB
      • by dangitman (862676)
        So, one component uses some code. How does that make the whole clock open source?
        • by node 3 (115640)

          So, one component uses some code. How does that make the whole clock open source?

          Here is the source [ladyada.net]. Just because you don't compile it doesn't mean it's not open source, it just means it's not open source *software*.

          • by dangitman (862676)
            That's called a schematic or circuit diagram. It isn't "the source."
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by node 3 (115640)

              That's called a schematic or circuit diagram. It isn't "the source."

              It's not the source *code*.

              There are "open source" beers and colas. This is in that same vein. Making a big fuss over the word "source" is a bit silly.

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by digitalunity (19107)

              Open Source has grown beyond just a description of software, it's an ideology too.

              And indeed, if we were talking about Verilog or VHDL, indeed, the "schematic" might just be little different from source.

        • by Locutus (9039)
          it's an exaggeration of the term "open source" but if you look at the pages linked then you should see what it's said the whole clock is open source.

          LadyAda publishes the circuit schematic as a PNG image file and in the original Eagle data file format. She publishes the board layout and the source code for the micro controller too.

          So what about this not being "open source" do you not get? The source data for everything is open to you.

          LoB
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Sparr0 (451780)

      And what if I want to add a stopwatch or countdown timer mode to it? Or make it count in an alternate base or time system?

      • by X0563511 (793323)

        How can this possibly be offtopic?

        Grandparent is a post saying "using that is overkill" - a direct response to the topic.

        Parent is a post saying "well yes, but what if..." which is a direct response to the direct response.

        It can't get any more on-topic than this! WTF!

      • by Viol8 (599362)

        I had a digital watch in 1979 that could do a stopwatch and day of the week. Do you honestly think it had a programmed CPU in it? It was all hardwired TTL logic on a single chip. You can do quite a lot with hardware alone - ask the creators of Pong.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          Fair point but the beauty of using a microcontroler is that you can reconfigure the system to specific needs without having to redesign the hardware every time. This is pretty much what microprocessors were intended for until various people thought "Hey I can make a general purpose machine out of these"
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Cid Highwind (9258)
          Microcontroller? about a buck
          Open source clock firmware? free
          1970s era TTL clock chips? good luck finding those (and the displays they're designed to drive) on eBay...


          You can do a lot with hardware alone, it's just not usually an efficient use of time, board space, power, or money anymore.
        • by Cassini2 (956052)

          Most of those old digital watch chips used a surprisingly microprocessorish architecture, and MOS (maybe even CMOS). I can almost guarantee that chip was not done with standard TTL, or even LSTTL. Your watch probably borrows from the 4004 type pre-computer architectures floating around at the time.

          There are two big reasons why a standard TTL architecture is not the way to go. Firstly, TTL consumes a great deal of power, which isn't optimal for a watch.

          The second reason to use a CPU-style architecture i

          • by Viol8 (599362)

            "Firstly, TTL consumes a great deal of power, which isn't optimal for a watch. "

            CPU cores in those days weren't exactly known for their frugality. And most ran on 5V , not the 1V available from a watch battery.

            What you describe I'm sure was possible but the watch I had was one of the very first that followed the LED generation of watches. I very much doubt it had anything approaching a 4004 in it - why embed 10K transistors to create a CPU core when you can get away with a tenth of that using hard wired log

            • by Cassini2 (956052)

              I just finished looking at a paper on the subject from 1972. In 1972, wrist watches were already using special bipolar transistor circuits for low power consumption. Standard TTL was unsuitable for the application. There was already a widespread drive to switch to CMOS, starting with RCA in 1967.

              The first early LSI watch chip was an Intel 5810 CMOS chip, and it is likely that is the chip in your 1979 LED wrist watch. Specifically, the Intel prototype boards used LEDs as the display for this chip.

              Given

        • by COMON$ (806135)
          Exactly, any CS or engineering student (let alone a professional) worth their salt can build a clock with nothing but a breadboard capacitors and a couple nand gates.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by ladyada (850297)
      if you read the design document, schematic and source you'll see theres a lot more in there than just a counter. theres day calculator, date, alarm, low power mode, RTC, HV boost, menu system with configuration, etc etc. a $2.50 microprocessor isnt overkill when you consider its doing -everything- except drive the HV VFD.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Time measures you.

  • by Thanshin (1188877) on Tuesday August 25, 2009 @02:04AM (#29183003)

    A long time ago I redirected my child interest in destroying and rebuilding electronics to tinkering with virtual constructs.

    So I shouldn't be interested in "hardware hacking"; however, too many hours of fallout, too many zombie movies and too many post apocaliptic novels have given me a degree of interest in that part of the engineering poetry.

    Time to go find an open source rifle made from old car parts.

    • by Unending (1164935)

      That would probably be a Sten.

    • Well, what do you think AK-47s in Afghanistan are made of? My father told me, that they rip(ped) off parts of bombs that did not explode, car parts, etc, and then used a small hammer and fire, to make real working AK-47s out of them. Horribly unprofessional and very impressive at the same time. ^^

  • by John Pfeiffer (454131) on Tuesday August 25, 2009 @02:14AM (#29183057) Homepage

    First off, LadyAda is awesome. I really don't need to say any more than that.

    I've been wanting to make something like this for a while now. A year or two ago, I bought a big box of the same old Soviet 'vacuum fluorescent indicator' tubes, but I was always having trouble working out the hardware involved, especially the power supply. Using a boost converter is a great idea which might have occurred to me if I had had any experience with them at the time. (Other projects have since taken priority)

    My enclosure design wasn't quite as...ah, 'conservative' as a nice simple laser-cut plexiglass box though :) http://media.giantpachinkomachineofdoom.com/blog/2008-06/images/clockwip3.png [giantpachi...ofdoom.com]

    Now I'm going to have to take another try at it! :D

    • I have made a nixie clock that uses counter chips and not some microcontroller. In any case, to get power for a VFD device you probably need a transformer with 3 outputs or 3 separate transformers. You need the anode voltage (depends on the display, probably 35-70VDC), power for your chips (5-12VDC) and power for the filament (usually 3VAC, it is important that this is AC).

      For my nixie clock I used two 220V/12V transformers. One takes in 220V from the outlet and transforms it to 12V (power for the chips), t

      • by hjf (703092)

        I'd like to see the circuit for your output driver, can you post it?

        • Very simple: for each cathode you will need a MPSA42 transistor and a 1K resistor. Connect the collector of the transistor to the cathode of the nixie, emitter to ground and base through the 1K resistor to your control logic.

          Here's the schematic: http://img175.imageshack.us/img175/9999/nixie.gif [imageshack.us]

          • by hjf (703092)

            that's what I was thinking. does each segment draw more than 20mA? if not, you can forget the transistor and resistor altogether, just hook up the filament to the output pin, if you use Microchip PICs. they can source or sink current.

            anyway you say that you need 3VAC for the filament. how are you driving it? transistors don't work both ways, with that circuit you're rectifying AC. I think you need both an NPN and PNP to make the full-wave go through.

            • This was for nixies, nixies do not have filaments, VFDs do and for them, you can get a transformer that outputs 3VAC.

              And you have to use transistors even if the number uses less than 20mA, because when it is unconnected, it has about 100V on it, which I assume the microchip would not like.

              Nixies have a common anode, so it's easy to drive them, VFDs have common cathode, so you need another PNP tranbsistor to provide the voltage.

    • by DZign (200479)

      I really like this project..

      One thing I'll test (if I ever have time) if the project can be adapted to run on pinball displays..
      Pinball machines in the 80ies also used this type of vacuum displays (Gottliebs had the nice blue ones like shown here), Bally/Stern/Williams had smaller red ones - 6 and 7 digits.

      I have enough of these pinball displays laying around (used ones can be found cheap from parts games on ebay and even new displays are still available from pinball parts shops).. so these are probably eas

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by bitrex (859228)

        They're not rare in Soviet Russia! Joking aside, these VFDs are not that rare. Like some kind of state-sponsored labor monster run amuck, these (and all kinds of other vacuum tubes) were produced by the trainload during the heyday of the Cold War. They can now be picked up for a few dollars on eBay from sellers in Russia and the former Soviet republics. Of course the US produced its fair share of tubes as well, but the vacuum tube era seems to have lasted much longer in Eastern Europe than here (particu

    • by AmiMoJo (196126)

      I would love to know where they are getting that case manufactured. I'm good with the electronics side, but hopeless when it comes to making cases.

      You can get PCBs manufactured cheaply in China now (Seeed Studio are good). For cases though the only real option seems to be people like Front Panel Express who only work with metal. I keep thinking about taking a basic woodworking course or something, but I have arthritis in my hands so it's not that simple.

      You would think that there would be someone doing low

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by PhunkySchtuff (208108)

        Have a look at Ponoko [ponoko.com] - they're great for making one-off items, like this case, from all sorts of laser-cut materials. I'm not affiliated with Ponoko, just a happy customer. Looking at the design of the case, if it wasn't laser-cut, it should have been - a case like that would be trivial to get sorted out with the precision of laser cutting...

    • ... to me anyway, is not just the project itself, but the sheer care taken with the instructions. There's no assumption that you know anything, which for someone like me - who last did electronics at school some 16 years ago - makes this project actually doable.

    • by Ageless (10680)

      That case is really awesome. Did you ever make the case, or is that just a rendering? I'd love to have that clock on my desk :)

      • Just a rendering for now. Still trying to get my CNC machine built to cut the pieces. EVENTUALLY it will happen. :3

        • by Ageless (10680)

          I was trying to find a way to contact you privately but no dice. Anyway, I have a 3 axis CNC mill I've been learning how to use for a few months now. If you are interested, I'd love to cut these pieces out based on your design. Maybe I could make a set for me and one for you, or something. Get in touch if you are interested: jason@vonnieda.org

    • Boost converters are pretty easy to make, these days. But you can also use a diode/capacitor-based voltage doubler (tripler, quadrupler...) [coolcircuit.com] and get to the same place, which is often easier because you don't have to worry about finding a high-voltage switcher or building some sort of accurate voltage divider so a boost converter controller doesn't get fried through overvoltage. You can use LTSpice [linear.com] to model a doubler and make sure it's actually going to be able to produce the voltage/amperage you need with
  • by lurcher (88082) on Tuesday August 25, 2009 @02:20AM (#29183091) Homepage

    IMHO this [die-wuestens.de] has more geek points.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by John Pfeiffer (454131)

      I don't know, man. The old IV-18 tubes are really wicked looking. You have a cylindrical glass vacuum tube, and inside it is a slab of glass with 7-segment digit phosphors, shiny silver traces, and extremely tiny, thin hexagonal grids infront of each digit. So, it basically looks like a glowing blue digital readout 'suspended' in a thin glass envelope.

      There's also the IV-27 which is larger and 13 digits instead of 8, and the IV-21 (I think it's 21) which is a tiny version of the IV-18.

    • That's pretty neat - but, ooooh, I can feel the burn-in from here!

    • Sorry, the green clock may be technically more advanced but it's too big and ugly. The blue Ladyada clock is sleeker and looks VERY cool.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      IMHO this [die-wuestens.de] has more geek points.

      I see your bet, and I raise you one nixie clock built in a bottle [hackaday.com].

    • That, my good man, is just too cool! How did you find it?
  • ... does it run Linux?
  • Looks like the clock on my mom's 15 year old oven. Also looks like the display on a 10-15 year old VCR. If a teenager could remember it being new, then it's not retro. Sorry.

    Cool project though.

  • That is one bad-ass looking display. I didn't even know these existed... and I can see now that I would want to use them over normal LCD or LEDs, when given the space and power to use them. That looks fantastic!

    Stick a color filter over it for even more badassery!

    • by Tetsujin (103070)

      That is one bad-ass looking display. I didn't even know these existed... and I can see now that I would want to use them over normal LCD or LEDs, when given the space and power to use them. That looks fantastic!

      Stick a color filter over it for even more badassery!

      The 7-segment ones strike me as rather boring - though admittedly I haven't seen 7-segment fluorescent in person before...

      Nixie tubes or (for more general applications) dot-matrix VFDs seem more appealing to me...

  • or... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by lxs (131946) on Tuesday August 25, 2009 @03:17AM (#29183417)

    You could just rip the clock out of an old VCR.

  • It's been a long time since I checked, but as I recall nixies only took 100v or so.

    -jcr

    • I dunno, as an electronics hobbiest, I generally consider "high voltage" to be any power source that would be dangerous to lick. 5V TTL? No problem. 9V battery? Fairly uncomforable. 18V power supply? Not dangerous, but uncomfortable enough that I wouldn't lick it more than once (and haven't). 120V-180V leading to a Nixie? High enough that I'm not going to try.

      I understand the standard may be different in industry.
      • by jcr (53032)

        I generally consider "high voltage" to be any power source that would be dangerous to lick.

        I draw that line at voltage that will arc through a rubber-coated canvas glove.

        -jcr

    • by unitron (5733)

      It's been a long time since I checked, but as I recall nixies only took 100v or so.

      170V DC

  • by dangitman (862676) on Tuesday August 25, 2009 @03:55AM (#29183585)

    I'm not sure that the "Open Source" moniker has any relevance to hardware projects like this. In software, the "source code" is the actual raw material that a complied application is made of. In hardware, the "source" is physical electronic components.

    I guess you could call the freely-available plans and schematics "the source" but that doesn't make much sense, because without hardware components, you can't compile it into a working device. So the term doesn't really apply, especially as we've had freely available electronic schematics for decades, and nobody ever called them "open source." This terminology just seems to be a way to seem cool and trendy.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by SlashWombat (1227578)
      Truth is, how much simpler can electronics (and programming) get than a clock ... The basic "algorithm" once you get your reference frequency low enough (... generally 1 Hertz) is -> divide by 60 = seconds, divide by 60 = minutes, divide by 12 (or 24 if you prefer) = hours. Using a micro, you put the divides in an interrupt routine. You can chose to display at the end of the interrupt, or in the main loop.

      I have seen (smart) 12 year olds build digital clocks using the relevant TTL/CMOS dividers, with
      • Back in the 80s you could walk into a Tandys (Radioshack in the states) and just buy components. Now all the Tandys are gone and Maplins has hardly any components in store - you need to mail order everything which is a bit off putting for people who just want to dabble. Well, IMO anyway.

    • by Max Romantschuk (132276) <max@romantschuk.fi> on Tuesday August 25, 2009 @04:10AM (#29183669) Homepage

      I respectfully disagree.

      RMS himself, the holy fanatic of free software, has compared swapping code to swapping recipes for cooking.

      Open source and by extension free software is about unrestricted access to the instructions for making something. If this something is a computer program, a piece of hardware, a meal, a knitted sweater or a bottle rocket is irrelevant.

      Granted, the term open source as understood by this community is most often applied to software. But the open source model can be successfully applied to any instructions that can be shared and improved upon. I dare you to dig a little, there is a lot more of this "open source" stuff out there than software.

      • by dangitman (862676)

        I dare you to dig a little, there is a lot more of this "open source" stuff out there than software.

        I'm well aware of it, I spent my teen and pre-teen years building electronics from freely-available plans. But we never called it "open source" back then, so why start now?

        Likewise, with your RMS example, nobody calls swapping recipes "open source," it's just swapping recipes, or "cooking."

        • by KFW (3689) *

          I spent my teen and pre-teen years building electronics from freely-available plans. But we never called it "open source" back then, so why start now?

          Um, because we have a good general purpose term for it now that wasn't in use when you were a pre-teen? /K

          • by Tetsujin (103070)

            I spent my teen and pre-teen years building electronics from freely-available plans. But we never called it "open source" back then, so why start now?

            Um, because we have a good general purpose term for it now that wasn't in use when you were a pre-teen? /K

            Because it explicitly conveys the notion that in addition to having open access to this (copyrighted) circuit design information, you also have a degree of freedom in how you may use it?

            • by dangitman (862676)

              Because it explicitly conveys the notion that in addition to having open access to this (copyrighted) circuit design information, you also have a degree of freedom in how you may use it?

              But when was that ever not the case?

          • by dangitman (862676)
            No, it's a very poor general-purpose term, because it dilutes the meaning of "open source" in software. We already have plenty of perfectly good terms for homebrew electronics, so why do we need to misuse this term?
    • at this moment in time , and goes down well with the we-hate-MS-stallman/linus/raymond[delete as applicable]-is-god fanboys which is what you need to get a story posted on slashdot.

    • I'm not sure that the "Open Source" moniker has any relevance to hardware projects like this. In software, the "source code" is the actual raw material that a complied application is made of. In hardware, the "source" is physical electronic components.

      I guess you could call the freely-available plans and schematics "the source" but that doesn't make much sense, because without hardware components, you can't compile it into a working device. So the term doesn't really apply, especially as we've had freely available electronic schematics for decades, and nobody ever called them "open source." This terminology just seems to be a way to seem cool and trendy.

      So, what can you do with the source code to a piece of software if you have no hardware? If someone just hands you a stack of paper with source code printed on it, and you've got no computer to run it on, what good is it?

      Or maybe we're the hardware. Source code is instructions that tell hardware what to do... These are instructions that tell us how to build a clock... Not much different from the control programs that run industrial robots.

      Regardless, I think the term applies. OSS is about the freedom t

    • You wouldn't say that if you've ever tried to understand or repair an item for which all that documentation is not available.

      There has also been open source software for decades, but it wasn't called open source either. It was called a user library.

      • by dangitman (862676)

        You wouldn't say that if you've ever tried to understand or repair an item for which all that documentation is not available.

        Yes I would, and yes I have.

        Documentation is not the same thing as "open source" it's documentation. By this logic, my DVD player is Open Source, because it comes with documentation in the form of a user manual.

  • by CarpetShark (865376) on Tuesday August 25, 2009 @05:40AM (#29184153)

    The vacuum fluorescent tubes aren't as dangerous as (high-voltage) Nixie tubes

    Why not? Can nothing be done to correct this?

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Has anyone else noticed that actual female geeks are outnumbered by trannies? linuxchix.org is all ex-men, not an actual born woman as far as the eye can see. Yeah, that's how to fix gender imbalance: declare the men as women. And you thought it was a const, not a variable.
  • by bl8n8r (649187) on Tuesday August 25, 2009 @06:21AM (#29184363)
    I wonder what happened to the nuke that was sitting behind the timer.
  • Nice looking clock, but:

    Using a microcontroller to supply the BOOST clock is a poor idea. If the software stumbles and leaves the BOOST line high, you have a dead short across the power supply.

    Perhaps fortunately, this might drag the power to the CPU low enough to cause it to reboot, which might restore operation. Or the low voltage might cause it to hang.

    Sometimes good old hardware is the right solution.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by ladyada (850297)
      the PWM is hardware controlled and there's a WDT its as reliable as any 'off the shelf' chip...even 555's latch up if set up wrong ;)
      • Pardon me, but is not the PWM software controlled?

        And what happens if:

        (1) The initialization code gets hung up for some reason before the PWM is programmed? You're okay if the outputs unconditionally default to LOW, but if they default to high or tri-state, kaboom.

        (2) What if the code goes off into the boonies and starts executing random code? I've had this happen where the random code just happened to have some "write to interrupt controller and disk" op codes! Lost everything. But at least I did no

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by ladyada (850297)
          it is firmware controlled but its set once, its not like an interrupt has to go off at the exact right time. AVRs are pretty good about not freaking out as long as you have BOD set and a WDT (which it does). also, to make the clock display brightness adjustable you cant just use an RC oscillator...how would you set the PWM duty cycle? could it *possibly* screw up? sure. just like logic chips sometimes die or glitch. but its not medical equipment, theres no interlocks, its a DIY desk clock kit in a plastic e
          • by bitrex (859228)
            Adding basic overcurrent protection to the boost converter would be a pretty easy mod that might address what Ancient Hacker is talking about - a current sense resistor in series with the switching transistor and an optocoupler could be used to pull down the drive line to ground if the BOOST line gets stuck high. There would have to be a current limiting resistor in series with the BOOST line, which wouldn't be a problem as a FET is being used as the switching device. This would also provide some measure
  • When I went away to university in 2000, I intended to use my digital wristwatch as an alarm clock. My Dad insisted that I should have something more substantial to wake me up - as a result I inherited his old bedside clock from ... the 80s, perhaps? Ancient, huge, unsubtle - one of its most noticeable features was a glowing digital display that was clearly not LED based. I had rather assumed it was some sort of fluorescent display but I've never seen another one like it. Looking at this clock the displa

  • Open Source Russian Vacuum Fluorescent Tube Clocks!
    Open Source Russian Vacuum Fluorescent Tube Clocks!
    Open Source Russian Vacuum Fluorescent Tube Clocks!

    Hi, I'm Al Hvorostovsky, President and CEO of Al Hvorostovsky's Open Source Russian Vacuum Fluorescent Tube Clock Emporium and Warehouse! Thanks to massive Soviet-era overproduction, I am now currently overstocked on Open Source Russian Vacuum Fluorescent Tube Clocks, and I am passing the savings on to you!!!

    Create that retro look in your living room!
    • by ae1294 (1547521)

      Have an EMP-proof clock for your bomb shelter!

      Sadly I don't believe this clock would be EMP-proof :-(

  • I'm really perplexed why making an ancient VFD clock is on the first page of /. I mean, cute project, but I could see this in Make or something, not here.

  • I'm serious. I dig it. And I have zero (hardware/electronics) technical capabilities. Anyone want to put a pricetag on a custom built one?

    Bids?

  • by Animats (122034) on Tuesday August 25, 2009 @11:39AM (#29188541) Homepage

    That's not retro; it has a CPU in it. Look at this all vacuum tube digital clock [engadget.com] where all the logic is tubes. 103 tubes.

  • Just clicked on the main site [ladyada.net] and was somewhat surprised by the layout. I don't think I've ever seem someone use that pattern for a website before.

    Needless to say, It's been bookmarked for later dissection...

    ... Props all around to Ladyada ...

Stinginess with privileges is kindness in disguise. -- Guide to VAX/VMS Security, Sep. 1984

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