We explore the history and retro-futuristic appeal of nixie tubes

2/16/20243 min read

Nixie tubes are a type of cold cathode display that were widely used in the mid-20th century for displaying numeric information. They consist of a simple glass bulb with an electric terminal on each end, which is then filled with a low-pressure gas such as neon or argon. When a high voltage is applied to the cathodes, the gas ionizes and emits a bright glow, forming the desired digits or symbols.

The Origins of Nixie Tubes

The first stable and well-functioning nixie tube construction was invented by Haydu Brothers Laboratories, which was founded by two Hungarian brothers, George Haydu and Zoltan Haydu, in 1936. However, it wasn't until the early 1950s that nixie tubes started to appear as the "display" of several gadgets, such as military apparels, printing machines, early calculators and instruments, or even the plaquettes of the New York stock market. The term "Nixie" is an abbreviation for "Numerical Indicator experimental No.1, in other words, NIX-1". The first patent for a readout tube was filed by Burroughs Corporation on December 13, 1955, and then issued on February 17, 1959. Burroughs Corporation bought Haydu Brothers Laboratories in 1954, including trademarks, production lines needed for manufacturing, and the inventors themselves, and that's when mass production started. This is the reason why we refer to the Hungarian brothers as the fathers of nixie tubes – but the next steps were taken by the more competent Burroughs Corporation.

The Rise and Fall of Nixie Tubes

Nixie tubes quickly became the device for displaying numeric information, and companies in the United States and abroad rushed to license the technology from Burroughs Corporation, which also supplied the tubes as OEM products that could be integrated into other companies’ systems. The warm glow of the Nixie came to evoke an era of unprecedented scientific and engineering achievement, of exciting and tangible discoveries, and of seemingly limitless progress. However, in the 1970s, Nixies were eclipsed by LEDs, which were not only much cheaper to make and use but also more versatile. The tubes might have died the lonely death of countless other obsolete devices, but their extraordinary resurgence didn’t really begin until around 2000, when a small but devoted cadre of hobbyists, collectors, and aficionados began searching out and buying old, never-used tubes and designing clocks around them. Nearly two decades later, the movement is still going strong, and Nixies now inhabit a unique niche as ultracool retro tech aimed at discriminating consumers.

Incorporating Nixie Tubes in Interior Decor

Nixie tubes have a futuristic appearance that has made them popular in sci-fi movies and technical equipment such as digital voltmeters, multimeters, and frequency counters. However, they have also found a place in interior decor, particularly in clocks, wristwatches, chessboards, wall art, desk lamps, table clocks, floor lamps, pendant lights, chandeliers, sconces, and night lights. They are often incorporated in designs that feature steampunk, industrial, mid-century modern, art deco, minimalist, rustic, or bohemian styles. Nixie tubes add a touch of vintage technology to any space and are sure to be a conversation starter.

The Enduring Appeal of Nixie Tubes

Nixie tubes have an enduring appeal that is hard to explain. They are not as practical as modern displays, but they have a unique aesthetic that is hard to replicate. The warm glow of the tubes and the sound of the gas ionizing are mesmerizing and evoke a sense of nostalgia for a time when technology was simpler and more tangible. Nixie tubes are also a testament to human ingenuity and the spirit of innovation that drove the mid-20th century. They represent a time when anything seemed possible and the future was full of promise.


In conclusion, Nixie tubes are not just a relic of the past; they are a unique and captivating addition to modern interior design. Their warm, retro-futuristic glow and the mesmerizing sound of the gas ionizing make them a perfect conversation piece. Whether incorporated into a steampunk-themed desk lamp, a minimalist-style wall clock, or a bohemian-chic pendant light, Nixie tubes add a touch of vintage technology and a sense of nostalgia to any space.