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September 30, 2010

The Clock Project

Years ago I was looking for a new project and I figured I'd like to build something electronic. The engineer in me said I would have to build something useful and the end result was the only thing I could come up with, a clock. But to make it worth the cost and my time and effort it would need to be about the best clock you could think of. It would have to have a fairly unique and excellent display and it would have to be self-setting.

I went through many permutations of materials, designs and products and would end up at a stalemate of a project costing too much and being too difficult to construct. I looked at various forms of LED display, some EL displays including one using EL wire in a custom designed segmented display and nixie tubes. As for my other requirement of self-setting, I was initially looking at WWVB as it would be easily integrated and require no external connection. The other options would be GPS or network time via NTP. Each time I investigated these options I'd invariably come to the same conclusion, what was out there as existing products wasn't right and building my own would be cost prohibitive. Although for nixie clocks I would often find clocks that would be suitable but had sold out or weren't for sale yet, I always just seemed to miss the boat. The cycle would renew every year or so and I would dig in, do the research, brainstorm some designs and come to a dead end again and drop it. Each time I might end up with some new parts or ideas, but nothing that could be completed. Then one day I stumbled upon an auction on ebay for a nixie tube clock that seemed just about right. It had most of the feature set I desired all wrapped up in a nice package for a reasonable price.

I don't remember if I had missed the auction or the price went out of range or what but I enquired about getting one from the seller. Sure enough he had perhaps just 1 left and wasn't planning to make anymore. As I had a few pieces of the clock kit already in hand I enquired about purchasing just the remaining pieces I needed and that worked just fine. So I put in my order and was a proud owner of a new project. I set it aside for my enjoyment in the winter months. As spring started to appear I quickly remembered I had a winter project to start and set about constructing my clock. The manufacturer had made a very detailed and easy to follow guide for constructing the kit and I worked my way slowly through it, spreading out my enjoyment. It was a bit tedious to solder all the small connections but after several days of effort I had it completed and passed the testing routines in the manual. I carefully placed the tubes in for the first test and fired it up and within seconds the tubes had awaken from their decades of slumber and I was treated to the warm glow of the nixie tubes complete with a lovely blue accent light. Unfortunately I discovered one of the "working" tubes I got was not so functional, only displaying some of the digits and other not at all or partially. I had bought these a while ago so the seller was no longer to be found for a refund. The seller of the clock kit graciously offered me a replacement at going cost. The other last little thing I had to do was interface the GPS receiver I had also obtained outside of the kit to the clock. As I discovered while I bought the correct physical interface, there really is no standard pinout for PS/2 GPS connections. So I made my own franken-cable from a PS/2 extension that converts one pinout to another and voila.

While the end result was still rather pricey, it is an elegant clock with tons of features that works great. For reference I have the BigTime (mark 2) from Laurence Wilkins at Mr Nixie, but my clock looks different than the mark 1 pictured and described there.

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