What time is it?

My next kit build is an Ice Tube clock from Adafruit. Which brings back lots of memories, because one of the first kits I built and wrote about was a nixie clock from Jeff Thomas, who was pretty much the founder of the modern nixie resurgence.

Times have changed since 2003. I’ve got a much better soldering iron, with a finer tip, and I wear serious magnifiers now. I’ve also built enough things that I’ve started to develop a sense of how kit instructions should go and PCBs should be laid out.

Or at least I thought I had. One the one hand, the “build a subsection and then test it before going on” methodology is helpful, especially for people who aren’t that great at soldering or placing components. On the other hand, it’s weird for anyone who’s used to just putting stuff in place, turning the board over and soldering everything. Some of the first things to go in were the tall stuff — sockets, big capacitors and such — which made sneaking the little resistors and caps and diodes in among them a little harder for the thick-fingered.

On the other hand, the step-by step testing came in handy when I soldered the piezo speaker where the inductor was supposed to go (but on the third hand, please more perspicuous positioning for the silk-screen labels — when you have a round outline that says “spkr” inside it, people can be forgiven for thinking that’s where the speaker goes, especially when the leads are a perfect fit.)

The vacuum fluorescent tube is just plain weird, with a bunch of thin, flexible uninsulated wires coming out. Having a set of evenly spaced holes around a circle was probably as good as any other way to connect it, although the holes could have been a touch bigger and made it less terrifying to pull the wires through. (The original nixie clock had this weird procedure where you put individual metal sockets onto the bottom of each tube, then aligned them inside oversize holes and filled in with solder. Tolerances have changed in 50 years.)

Anything with lots of fine leads is a pain. The chip carrier for the high-voltage tube driver had gotten mashed somewhere in the kitting/shipping/storage process, so it took a half our or so to straighten all the pins so they would fit their holes. More interesting because of course you can’t see the inner layers while you’re actually trying to insert the carrier. Maybe I need another level of magnifier.

Does it work? Yep, just fine. It won’t keep nearly as good time as its older cousin, because it uses a mere crystal instead of a surplus cellphone GPS unit, but that’s OK. The instructions for resetting the time are thoughtfully laser-etched onto the bottom of the case, instead of buried in a magnet-activated menu system that requires you to know your offset from GMT. I wonder whether, over the years, the VFD segments will start fading around the edges the way the nixie numerals have.

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