In the early 2000’s, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak (the “Woz”) equipped himself with a tube-display digital watch. This stylish piece of tech harkens back to the cold war era—with its glowing display and retro industrial design. Dubbed the “Nixie Watch” by its creator (David Forbes), it looks more like a piece of equipment at a nuclear test site than a timepiece. Since the Woz acquired this timekeeper, it’s harbored a lot of curiosity from folks who’ve followed his career with Apple. As well—with a recent bit of blockbuster screen time in the 2015 film Steve Jobs—the Nixie Watch has been seeing a lot of creative mimicry from would-be watchmakers and entrepreneurs who have an affinity for repurposing old technology. But what is a Nixie Watch? How does it function? These are some questions worth exploring with this distinct and idiosyncratic wristwatch. So—let’s continue!
As the name would suggest, the watch itself runs on Nixie tube technology. A Nixie tube is a cold cathode tube which uses a glow discharge to display information. Unlike its warmer cousin—the vacuum tube—the cold cathode tech of Nixie tubes works like a neon lamp, generating less heat because of the gas that fills the tube and illuminates the number-shaped cathodes. However, much like their vacuum counterparts, Nixies take a decent bit of voltage to run (around 140v—20 more than a house outlet (or more)). As it were, the Woz’s Nixie thus requires a decent amount of battery juice. Without getting into the weeds too much, the watch harvests electricity from said battery; deploys that electricity through currents; then the currents are switched off-and-on at exact times via a circuit board—which governs the electrical currents. It’s quite a bit of leg work to tell the time. However, it’s not too far from most modern digital quartz-watch tech (tubes aside). Furthermore, because of the amount of voltage it takes to run the tubes, the Woz’s watch does not constantly display the time. As it was engineered, Wozniak’s Nixie Watch has to be tipped to a certain angle to trigger the display. This design feature helps conserve necessary energy for the watch’s operation.
On that note: In an interview with Medgadget, circa 2009, Wozniak addresses the watch-tipping aspect of his timepiece. As he’s discussing his Nixie, the Woz reveals that it’s a customizable feature on the watch. Indeed—when the bezel and crystal are removed, the wearer can interface with the watch’s display. There are buttons that let the wearer set the hours; minutes; seconds; and the angle at which the time displays on the watch. It’s a clever bit of engineering that Mr. Wozniak enthusiastically demonstrates during his brief interview. Even though the tipping aspect of the watch might come across as a bit impractical to some, it serves the overall function of the timepiece really well—and adds another level of depth to its unique character.
Although the Nixie Watch might be seen as a piece of geek-niche tech, its uniqueness has a solid level of appeal. This is especially true in the United States, where the cold-war-era space race and nuclear arms race culturally reinforced tube-driven aesthetics. Even though ten years have passed and not “everyone” is wearing one (as Seth Rogen playing the Woz suggests in the Steve Jobs film), the Nixie Watch has garnered a market for itself. Between the Woz watch creator David Forbes’ “Cathode Corner”; other specialized online stores; and numerous Etsy creators, there’s no shortage of Nixie timepieces to be had. Though the larger Nixie tube clocks appear to be more popular among Nixie enthusiasts, the smaller tubes of the Nixie watch make for a much more portable endeavor. So, if you have 2-5hundred bucks to spare—or a lighter pocket book and DIY sensibilities—you can Woz out and have yourself a 40+ year old gem of tech on your wrist. Just be careful to make it clear to the TSA that it is, in fact, not “a bomb” (Steve Jobs film).
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