My quest to make my piece, Nixie Rex, began several decades prior to actually working on the piece. A student gave me a gift that intrigued me for years. It was a large Nixie tube. I kept his gift on my desk for nearly twenty years before starting the work that lead to this sculpture.
The original electronic nixie tubes were about the size of your thumb and had a complex design of formed metal numbers inside a glass envelope. They were used as counting tubes. Sometimes with 7 or even 14 segments, a tube could be made to produce letters, numbers, and/or symbols. Nixie tubes were used largely in instrumentation starting in the 1950’s and they remained in use until the early 1980’s when they were replaced by more cost effective means.
This sculpture is made up of 6 handmade, very large nixie type tubes. They appear in the form of a clock but is, in fact, a blown glass sculpture that uses an old technology made anew, crafted into a piece I hope will prove to be a doorway to a new art media. My field of work has developed my deep appreciation of this particular synthesis of elegant and largely abandoned lighting technology. There is an inherent beauty in its perceived simplicity, its soft neon glow, and its ability to interface with the outside world to display information or apparent kinetic motion.
My background for doing this work is a cross disciplinary mix of engineering and art. Armed with an engineering background and a lifelong passion to make glass sculpture, I’ve run a small company in Boston for 30 plus years. The company focuses on making neon and plasma related designs for museums worldwide as well as doing lighting research and creating dozens of lighted products. My mission is to explore all the known forms of turning electricity into light and to adapt them to making sculpture.
Nixie tubes light by what’s called a glow discharge. Simply put, this means forming a sheath of glowing gas around wires. This looks like the incandescence of a light bulb but in this case there’s light but no heat. With a moderately high DC voltage a wire inside a low pressure gas can be made to glow. Different colors can be created by altering the type of gas used, and pressure. This is my artist’s palette. Neon is used because it is overwhelmingly brighter than the other inert gases.
The direct current also requires a second unlit electrode or ground plane. Nixie tubes use a wire mesh as the ground plane.
Multiple electrodes are needed to make a tube with multiple elements, one for each lighted element. This was one of the most challenging aspects of the project. Years ago there were readily available sources of parts for electronic tubes but those sources have largely disappeared with the company’s that made them. I had to engineer an 8 glass-to-metal seal base to build the tube. These tungsten seals have to be strong and absolutely hermetic. There is no partial success allowed with these.
The next great challenge was to build the large internal structure of wires and metal strips that light up. This was akin to building a structure in an alien environment. Scaling up the original designs wouldn’t work due to the scale I was working in. The original tubes were built on mica frames but that wasn’t possible for tubes nearly 2’ long.
All the materials had to be extremely low in vapor pressure (meaning they didn’t give off gas), they had to be able to be heated to 1100 degrees during processing of the tube. This also meant that all the connections had to be welded. Soldering wouldn’t work. Some of the wires had to be bare so that they lit up, while others had to be insulated to keep them from lighting. However, no simple insulation withstands 1100 degrees. The metals couldn’t tarnish nor sputter excessively…and the list goes on. Each step required experimentation and entailed a lot of trial and error.
The constructed tube had to be baked under a high vacuum to obtain the required purity level and then filled to a precise pressure with gas, or as I was soon to find out, a complex mix of gases. I was able to find this out only by stepping methodically through the construction. My first nixie clock, one half as big as the final one, took nearly a year to build and lasted approximately 5 hours due to tiny error in gas chemistry. The original clocks metals “sputtered”, or blew off metal, as the tubes ran, resulting in dark splotches of vaporized metal covering the inside of the glass tubes.
Walker Chan, a good friend from MIT, custom designed the electronics. He quickly understood the high voltage source needed and was able to make digitally connected circuit boards that drove the display with current limited DC voltage. These boards connected to a custom programmed Arduino controller to provide the clocks intelligence.
For the base, Richard Burbidge designed and fabricated the hand rubbed brass support surrounding multilayered sandblasted panels. This was inspired by Da Vinci drawings though we added a distinctly non-Da Vinci element of a plasma filled blown glass “brain”, that provides a flickering green glow to the sand blasted panels.
As I moved through the process of making this piece, I asked myself the same questions I would ask of a student. Is it an art piece, a personal obsession, a decorative or nostalgic piece, or perhaps something more suitable at a Makers Faire?
To see this work solely as a clock is to miss the point. Crafting this blown glass, creating a type of generally unknown physics to produce light and information is definitely a Makers piece. Its captured and controlled plasma, softly glowing shows an old technology made anew for a new purpose.
The scale of the tubes allows the viewer access into the plasma filled interior to see the workings. Nothing physically moves, but information moves through the piece. The invisible interactions between the physics, displayed information, the physical making of the piece, and connection between antique technology, all provide entry into understanding.