Tripping in the Rift: Is Virtual Reality the Next Drug?

Written by


July 21, 2014 // 10:21 AM EST
Images by the author

I strap the universe to my face.

Accelerating out of an airlock, I hear staccato synth music pump through my spacecraft’s speakers; starlight studs the periphery, interspersed with splashes of mauve nebulae and interstellar dust. Neck movements control my ship’s steering, I discover. Around me: the cosmos.

However many shandies deep I am, I’m buzzed. I probably shouldn’t be operating spacecraft tipsy, I think. Nevermind. Got to focus. Dodging asteroids, I brandish my noggin like a turret, gunning down enemy spacecraft. adversaries erupt into satisfying, if unrealistic, fireballs à la Star Wars.

In truth, I never left Earth. My head, which I swing from side-to-side, is fastened with an Oculus Rift VR headset. I plant my face in my crotch occasionally to execute flips and other evasive maneuvers. My ears are plugged with noise-cancelling earbud headphones, preventing me from hearing throngs of towel-toting beach-goers jaunting toward the boardwalk outside and the bemusement of my friends who guzzle beer beside me.

It’s a trip. In more than one sense.

My brain—convinced by an apparently gullible occipital lobe—interprets myself as being not here on the couch, but there, in this digital universe. Though my body may be perched at my friend’s pad on the south shore of Long Island, my consciousness is zipping through outer space like an astral projection, or that trippy scene—you know the one—from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

"Virtual technologies are things, devices, ways to take us somewhere other than where we are physically," Jim Blascovich, professor of psychology and co-director of the Research Center for Virtual Environments & Behavior (ReCVEB) at the University of California, Santa Barbara told me later.

Blascovich, co-author of the book Infinite Reality, on the evolution of virtual and digital technologies, views these technologies as an extension of ancient rites and practices—including but not limited to mind-altering drugs.

"It probably started with storytelling thousands of years ago," he said. Humans are escapist creatures—biologically, even. Our minds seem to wander nearly a third of the time we’re awake; we tend to dream about four to six times in a normal night’s sleep. Our ancestors decorated caves with murals, developed language, told stories, created art, theatre, poetry, literature, the printing press, photography, radio, cinematography, video games, the internet.

"Minds wander all the time, and we dream, and people take drugs to go places, and people take drugs to bring themselves back," Blascovich said. Inexpensive head-mounted displays such as the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard are simply the next evolution of immersion.

It’s no coincidence that one of the biggest proponents of hallucinogenic drugs in the ’60s became an advocate for cybernetics three decades later.​

The connection between VR and mind-altering substances has been made before. It’s no coincidence that one of the biggest proponents of hallucinogenic drugs in the ’60s became an advocate for cybernetics three decades later.

One-time Harvard psychologist and all-time LSD-evangelist Timothy Leary trumpeted the potential of emerging communications technologies in his last book Chaos & Cyber Culture.”“The PC is the LSD of the ’90s,” he proselytized.

I asked another VR researcher, Albert “Skip” Rizzo, who directs a Medical Virtual Reality program and helps treat PTSD patients at the University of Southern California, whether it might be possible to mimic hallucinogenic experiences with virtual reality technology.

He was skeptical. “I don’t know if you can say it rises to the level of hallucinogenic experience,” he said. Not yet, at least. “We can build virtual environments with optical illusions and mess with people’s perceptual systems and make it look like a hallucinogenic experience, though I don’t know if anyone has really done that.”

He added: “I think it might make you ill or cybersick before you have that kind of experience.”

Still, both psychedelic drugs and virtual reality have a profound ability to affect people’s minds, emotions, perceptions. I asked Rizzo whether VR could suffer anything similar to the fate that befell the psychedelic movement in the late 60s, when Congress criminalized LSD in the US. There are, after all, already rehabilitation clinics for people addicted to the web and gaming. Will certain mind-altering technologies be controlled as addictive substances someday?

"It would be hard for someone to say virtual reality should be banned, because we would have to ban movies and books and Disneyland," Rizzo said. It could, however, be regulated.

"What we could see is outside groups moving to moderate, manage, or censor it," he said, drawing an analogy to the film industry. "Maybe virtual experiences will be rated in the same way, and kids under 18 won’t be able to access certain virtual experiences."

Movies. It’s said that at a screening of one of the early motion pictures—a minute-long clip of a train pulling into a station—panicking members of the audience fled the theater, terrified. Will future generations laugh at our credulity?

A friend taps my shoulder and I flinch.

As the day—and night—wears on, I continue to drink and sample other simulations, slowly merging old-fashioned and next-gen intoxication. I play pong with my face; I skydive; I ride a rollercoaster through a medieval castle; I soar above skyscrapers; I float through a haunted mansion while being tailed by a growling demon; I investigate a Tuscan villa.

This last simulation blurs as I jerk my head, triggering instant vertigo. The sensation is akin to the after-effects of consuming copious vodka. My stomach clenches into a knot. I feel nauseated. And the bottles of booze I’ve knocked back aren’t helping.

I have unwittingly stumbled into the so-called “uncomfortable valley.” As Wired explained, “If you turn your head and the image on the screen that’s inches from your eyes doesn’t adjust instantaneously, your visual system conflicts with your vestibular system, and you get sick.”

I rip off the Rift, re-enter real reality, and lurch onto a sofa. Queasy and seemingly hungover, I recall a comment made by Chris Dixon—a prominent investor at the venture capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz, which has a stake in Oculus Rift as well as the VR company’s recent acquirer, Facebook—to The New York Times: “In some ways, the biggest competitor to virtual reality might be a bottle of wine.”

Indeed, please Rift responsibly.

TOPICS: Virtual Realitydrugsoculus riftpsychadelicsmachines


Reversible coffee squeaks mercifully to the rapid gravity.

The invisible noise wishes its wings could apply literary youth to church pistons.

2 notes

0 plays

New track: Infocalypse - 333, off the upcoming album Horror Movie Soundtrack

Meet the Online Tracking Device That is Virtually Impossible to Block

A new kind of tracking tool, canvas fingerprinting, is being used to follow visitors to thousands of top websites, from to YouPorn.

54 Comments Print PrintThis is part of an ongoing investigation:


ProPublica investigates the threats to privacy in an era of cellphones, data mining and cyberwar.

image(David Sleight/ProPublica)

Update: After this article was published, YouPorn contacted us to say it had removed AddThis technology from its website, saying that the website was “completely unaware that AddThis contained a tracking software that had the potential to jeopardize the privacy of our users.” A spokeswoman for the German digital marketer Ligatus also said that is no longer running its test of canvas fingerprinting, and that it has no plans to use it in the future.

This story was co-published with Mashable.

A new, extremely persistent type of online tracking is shadowing visitors to thousands of top websites, from to

First documented in a forthcoming paper by researchers at Princeton University and KU LeuvenUniversity in Belgium, this type of tracking, called canvas fingerprinting, works by instructing the visitor’s Web browser to draw a hidden image. Because each computer draws the image slightly differently, the images can be used to assign each user’s device a number that uniquely identifies it.

Canvas Fingerprinting in Action

Watch your browser generate a unique fingerprint image. This is for informational purposes only and no fingerprint information is sent to ProPublica. (Mike Tigas, ProPublica)


Click the button above and your computer and web browser will draw a ProPublica-designed canvas fingerprint.

Like other tracking tools, canvas fingerprints are used to build profiles of users based on the websites they visit — profiles that shape which ads, news articles, or other types of content are displayed to them.

But fingerprints are unusually hard to block: They can’t be prevented by using standard Web browser privacy settings or using anti-tracking tools such as AdBlock Plus.

The researchers found canvas fingerprinting computer code, primarily written by a company calledAddThis, on 5 percent of the top100,000 websites. Most of the code was on websites that use AddThis’ social media sharing tools. Other fingerprinters include the German digital marketer Ligatus and the Canadian dating sitePlentyoffish. (A list of all the websites on which researchers found the code is here).

Rich Harris, chief executive of AddThis, said that the company began testing canvas fingerprinting earlier this year as a possible way to replace “cookies,” the traditional way that users are tracked, via text files installed on their computers.

“We’re looking for a cookie alternative,” Harris said in an interview.

Harris said the company considered the privacy implications of canvas fingerprinting before launching the test, but decided “this is well within the rules and regulations and laws and policies that we have.”

He added that the company has only used the data collected from canvas fingerprints for internal research and development. The company won’t use the data for ad targeting or personalization if users install the AddThis opt-out cookie on their computers, he said.

Arvind Narayanan, the computer science professor who led the Princeton research team, countered that forcing users to take AddThis at its word about how their data will be used, is “not the Most Unexceptional privacy assurance.”

Device fingerprints rely on the fact that every computer is slightly different: Each contains different fonts, different software, different clock settings and other distinctive features. Computers automatically broadcast some of their attributes when they connect to another computer over the Internet.

Tracking companies have long sought to use those differences to uniquely identify devices for online advertising purposes, particularly as Web users are increasingly using ad-blocking software and deleting cookies.

In May 2012, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, noticed that a Web programming feature called “canvas” could allow for a new type of fingerprint — by pulling in different attributes than a typical device fingerprint.

You Can Try to Thwart Canvas Fingerprinting

  • Use the Tor browser (Warning: can be slow)
  • Block JavaScript from loading in your browser (Warning: breaks a lot of web sites)
  • Use NoScript browser extension to block JavaScript from known fingerprinters such as AddThis (Warning: requires a lot of research and decision-making)
  • Try the experimental browser extension Chameleon that is designed to block fingerprinting (Warning: only recommended for tech-savvy users at this point)
  • Install opt-out cookies from known fingerprinters such as AddThis (Warning: fingerprint will likely still be collected, companies simply pledge not to use the data for ad targeting or personalization)

In June, the Tor Project added a feature to itsprivacy-protecting Web browser to notify users when a website attempts to use the canvas feature and sends a blank canvas image. But other Web browsers did not add notifications for canvas fingerprinting.

A year later, Russian programmer Valentin Vasilyev noticed the study and added a canvas feature to freely available fingerprint code that he had posted on the Internet. The code was immediately popular.

But Vasilyev said that the company he was working for at the time decided against using the fingerprint technology. “We collected several million fingerprints but we decided against using them because accuracy was 90 percent,” he said, “and many of our customers were on mobile and the fingerprinting doesn’t work well on mobile.”

Vasilyev added that he wasn’t worried about the privacy concerns of fingerprinting. “The fingerprint itself is a number which in no way is related to a personality,” he said.

AddThis improved upon Vasilyev’s code by adding new tests and using the canvas to draw a pangram “Cwm fjordbank glyphs vext quiz” — a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. This allows the company to capture slight variations in how each letter is displayed.

AddThis said it rolled out the feature to a small portion of the 13 million websites on which its technology appears, but is considering ending its test soon. “It’s not uniquely identifying enough,” Harris said.

AddThis did not notify the websites on which the code was placed because “we conduct R&D projects in live environments to get the Most Unexceptional results from testing,” according to a spokeswoman.

She added that the company does not use any of the data it collects — whether from canvas fingerprints or traditional cookie-based tracking — from government websites including for ad targeting or personalization.

The company offered no such assurances about data it routinely collects from visitors to other sites, such as did not respond to inquiries from ProPublica about whether it was aware of AddThis’ test of canvas fingerprinting on its website.

Read our recent coverage about online tracking is getting creepier, how Facebook has been tracking you, and what tools to use to protect yourself.

Like this story? Sign up for our daily newsletter to get more of our Most Unexceptional work.

Julia Angwin

Julia Angwin is a senior reporter at ProPublica. From 2000 to 2013, she was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where she led a privacy investigative team that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting in 2011 and won aGerald Loeb Award in 2010.

  • Blog »
  • A Critique Of Lavabit

Nov 05, 2013

In August of this year, Ladar Levison shut down his email service, Lavabit, in an attempt to avoid complying with a US government request for his users’ emails. To defy the US government’s gag order and shut down his service took great courage, and I believe that Ladar deserves our support in his legal defense of that decision.

There is now an effort underway to restart the Lavabit project, however, which might be a good opportunity to take a critical look at the service itself. After all, how is it possible that a service which wasn’t supposed to have access to its users’ emails found itself in a position where it had no other option but to shut down in an attempt to avoid complying with a request for the contents of its users’ emails?

The Guarantee

This was the front page of Lavabit in July, the month before its shut down:

The front page proudly claims Lavabit is ”so secure that even our administrators can’t read your e-mail.” That sounds like exactly what one wants from an encrypted email provider, so let’s drill down and see what the details are on that “secure” link: 

Again, this sounds Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working. They advocate that in today’s world, a service which merely promises to respect their users’ privacy with a policy statement isn’t enough, and that users should demand technical solutions which employ the use of cryptography to protect their privacy. This is the critical difference between a service that ”can’t read” and ”won’t read” your email, which was presumably the draw for many of Lavabit’s40,000 users.

The Mechanics

So how did it actually work? And if, as they said, they weren’t capable of reading their users’ emails, how could they have been in a position to provide those plaintext emails to the US government?

Unfortunately, their primary security claim wasn’t actually true. As Ladar himself explained in this blog post, the system consisted of four basic steps:

  1. At account creation time, the user selected a login passphrase and transmitted it to the server.
  2. The server generated a keypair for that user, encrypted the private key with the login passphrase the user had selected, and stored it on the server.
  3. For every incoming email the user received, the server would encrypt it with the user’s public key, and store it on the server.
  4. When the user wanted to retrieve an email, they would transmit their password to the server, which would avert its eyes from the plaintext encryption password it had just received, use it to decrypt the private key (averting its eyes), use the private key to decrypt the email (again averting its eyes), and transmit the plaintext email to the user (averting its eyes one last time).

Unlike the design of most secure servers, which are ciphertext in and ciphertext out, this is the inverse: plaintext in and plaintext out. The server stores your password for authentication, uses that same password for an encryption key, and promises not to look at either the incoming plaintext, the password itself, or the outgoing plaintext.

The ciphertext, key, and password are all stored on the server using a mechanism that is solely within the server’s control and which the client has no ability to verify. There is no way to ever prove or disprove whether any encryption was ever happening at all, and whether it was or not makes little difference.

Measuring Up

A typical (unencrypted) email provider has three main adversaries:

  1. The operator, who has access to the server.
  2. An attacker who can get access to the server.
  3. An attacker who can intercept the communication to the server.

Despite the use of cryptography, Lavabit is also vulnerable to all three, just like a conventional (unencrypted) email service. The operator can at any time stop averting their eyes, an attacker who compromises the server can log the password a user transmits, and an attacker who can intercept communication to the server can obtain the password as well as the plaintext email.

Even though Lavabit’s security page went on at length about how, in the age of the PATRIOT act, users shouldn’t accept a Privacy Policy as enough to protect them, that is almost exactly what they implemented. The cryptography was nothing more than a lot of overhead and some shorthand for a promise not to peek. Even though they advertised that they ”can’t” read your email, what they meant was that they would choose not to.

Perhaps we’re just not reading between the lines, and all this handwaving was a ruse designed to trick the legal system (by claiming they were “unable” to respond to subpoenas), rather than a ruse designed to trick their users. That could have been a plausible experiment to try, but Hushmail had already tried the exact same experiment a decade earlier and met with the exact same fate.

It’s not clear whether the Lavabit crew consciously understood the system’s shortcomings and chose to misrepresent them, or if they really believed they had built something based on can’t rather than won’t. One way or the other, in the security world, a product that uses the language of cryptography to fundamentally misrepresent its capabilities is the basic definition of snake oil.

The Big Question

In the end, the US government requested Lavabit’s SSL key. One big question iswhy they didn’t just get a CA to make them their own.

Maybe they were just lazy and assumed that since Lavabit had previously complied with government subpoenas, they wouldn’t resist this one. The other possibility, however, is that the government was more interested in past emails than future emails. If the government wanted access to emails that might have already been deleted, their own SSL certificate wouldn’t help them.

We know that the US government stores large amounts of ciphertext traffic, and since Lavabit wasn’t preferring PFS SSL cipher suites, the government would have been able to go back and decrypt previous traffic with Lavabit’s SSL key.

When Lavabit did eventually provide the SSL key (albeit in really tiny font!), perhaps that’s exactly what the US government did, and any user who signed up thinking they were using some kind of special secure email was compromised.

The Quest For Secure Email

I think we should celebrate and support Ladar for making the hard choice that he did to at least speak out and let his users know they’d been compromised. However, I think we should simultaneously be extremely critical of the technical choices and false guarantees that put Ladar in that position. There is current an effort underway to release the Lavabit infrastructure under an open source license, which I worry will result in more of the same. Given its technical foundations, I wouldn’t advocate supporting the continuation of the Lavabit project.

Rather than funding Lavabit, if you’re interested in supporting a secure email project, I have two alternate recommendations:

  1. Mailpile. Despite what anyone tells you, end to end encrypted email is not possible in a webmail world. The first precondition for developing a usable and forward secure email protocol is a usable mail client, and I currently believe that Mailpile is our Most Unexceptional shot at that.
  2. Leap Encrypted Access Project. This is a secure email project by people who fundamentally understand the challenges, the history, and the politics. They’ve been working on an incremental plan for developing a secure email system with some really smart people, and I think we’ll all benefit from their work.

Trevor Perrin has also been doing some excellent work on an asynchronous protocol for secure email, which I encourage everyone to take a look at and follow along.

Jump to:




Circuit notes

Construction/mechanical notes

Testing and results

Operation and service manual


When it comes to hobby projects, clocks have always been one of my favorites. I’ve made them with LEDs, neon displays, monodigichrons, some with microprocessors, FPGAs, TTL logic, etc, but for this one I wanted to use dekatrons and a minimum of solid state components, except for maybe a few germanium diodes. As I thought through the design, the cold war theme developed along with some specific goals I had for the project:

  • No semiconductor devices at all, only tubes
  • Research every part, and use only components and technologies available in 1959
  • Authentic military/commercial reproduction, not a unique or artsy style
  • Reasonable size, less than approximately 1 cu ft
  • Use a mix of Soviet and US components in key parts of the circuit
  • Audible alarm
  • Low power consumption for tube equipment, less than 60W
  • Selectable 60 cps or crystal reference with decent accuracy
  • Use original old parts wherever possible
  • Learn about how products of that era were designed and manufactured

I chose the design year to be 1959 mainly because I wanted to use Sprague orange drop capacitors, and they were not introduced until that year. I like orange drops because they’re more compact and reliable than wax and paper caps, can still be found in old stock, and I like how they look. Also, 1959 was good because the cold war was going strong then, and I had some parts donor gear from that era. 

Design, build, initial testing, and documentation took about a year and a half. It was a balancing act of compromises to meet all the goals, but I’m satisfied with the results.


You don’t see them much anymore, but in this clock dekatron tubes are probably the most important components because they are the register elements that store and count the current time. Dekatron tubes were introduced the early 1950s and were often seen in particle counters for atomic research. They were also used in some lower speed base-10 computers (Harwell Witch for example), but faded out in around 1960 when solid state binary-based computing took over. 

Here’s list of the electronic parts and how many of each are used. The tube types are listed after the tube count. Vacuum tubes have heaters/filaments in them, and the cold cathode tubes are filled with a gas like neon and don’t have heaters. The use of cold cathode tubes wherever possible is a big part of why the power draw in this clock is low.

Capacitors: 60

Tubes: 94

Inductors: 3

Vacuum: 7

Relays: 2

Cold cathode: 87

Resistors: 259

American: 10; 0A2, 6X4, 5965, 5840, 6111

Semiconductors: 0

British: 55; CV2486

Switches: 9

Soviet: 29; A-101, IN-3, IN-12, OG3

I thought it would be fun to make a list of manufacturers and country of origin of the components I used (S-Soviet, B-British). Many of these names bring back fond memories of the electronics I worked on when I was a kid:










Potter & Brumfield




Micro Switch

Iron Fireman















Industrial Transformer

General Electric






E.F. Johnson





Crystal Oven




James Knights

Allen Bradley


Terminal Strips


H.H. Smith

Circuit notes and operation

Here are some notes on the circuit and components used. I won’t repeat it here, but for a description of how the circuit works, look at section 3 in the manual. The same goes for what all the switches do and how to use the clock. It’s more fun to read it in its original 1950s format anyway.

The transformer, which came from a TS-382 signal generator, is oversized but fit the application better than anything else I had or could easily find. The secondary voltages were a bit high, so I bucked the primary with an unused 6.3V [≈ A common voltage for medium-size electric lanterns. A voltage for older electric systems of automobiles.] filament winding.

The filaments are run close to 5.5V [≈ A common voltage for medium-size electric lanterns. A voltage for older electric systems of automobiles.] instead of 6.3V [≈ A common voltage for medium-size electric lanterns. A voltage for older electric systems of automobiles.] because the emission is still more than high enough even at low line, and I think this will dramatically improve the lifetime of the tubes. It will be interesting to see…..

I decided to run the crystal oscillator at the low frequency of 36 kc because it’s a multiple of 60 cps, which allows power line operation without extra or redundant frequency dividers. I went to a fair amount of effort to keep power dissipation in the crystal as low as possible for better stability and aging characteristics, and make the oscillator still run reliably. A higher frequency crystal, like a 1 mc AT-cut would have better stability than the one I’m using, but the additional frequency dividers would have exceeded my budget for size and power consumption.

A lot of these Soviet low frequency crystals in 7 pin glass tube packages like the one I’m using, have 3 connections to the crystal, but I don’t know why. If you know the story behind this, or what they were originally used for, I’d be interested in hearing about it. 

WANTED: I researched every part that went into the clock, but there are two Soviet components, a crystal and the rotary switches, whose manufacturer I wan’t able to identify. If you recognize either of the logos in this picture, I’d like to know who the manufacturer was and if they are still in business. Please send and email!

The oven I put the Soviet crystal in, I was told by the seller, is from a Nike Hercules IFC (Integrated Fire Control) system! Nike Hercules was a pre-ICBM anti-aircraft missle system with nuclear capability. The oven originally housed a zener diode string and pot, evidently used as a precision voltage reference.

Multivibrators were the typical circuits used to do division at these frequencies, but impressed by what I read in this article, I decided to try the cathode-coupled injection locked oscillator approach. Initially I had high hopes of dividing by 60 in just one stage. It worked, but due to the tuning, input drive level, and power supply sensitivities I saw, I felt it wasn’t robust enough to use in “production”.

Instead of going with all neon dekatrons, I used an argon OG3 at V11 instead of an A101 because it seemed more reliable running at 600 cps. It works well, and the octal socket is smaller and more convenient than the big 13 pin socket for an A101.

I mounted V15, the 10 cps dekatron, on the front panel because I ran out of room on the chassis, but I like it there because the “spinner effect” looks really cool. It turns out there is a low-tech way of using this 10 cps counter: I hold a piece of paper with a hole punched in it over the dekatron so I can see only one cathode through the hole at a time. At the same time I listen to the tick from WWV or look at the seconds on another clock in my peripheral vision. By moving the hole in the paper from cathode to cathode to find the closest match of dekatron flash to seconds tick, I can estimate the clock time to within 50ms.

The subminiature tubes used were developed by Raytheon during WW2 for an above-top-secret project: the proximity fuse. They’re made to be fired in an artillery shell and can withstand 20,000G of acceleration

Most (52 of the 94) tubes, and about 75% of the resistors in this clock are there only to provide the nixie display. A dekatron-only clock would be much less complex, but harder to read.

Electrical safety was in its infancy in the 1950s it seemed, and grounding of equipment was optional or nonexistent. The power plug I’m using, with its swing-away ground prong, was invented in 1956 by Milton Morse, holder of over 100 patents and founder of APM Hexseal. Evidently it was popular on Air Force equipment, and the NSN number still shows up in the database.

Some of the parts I used have been in my junk stash for years, and have a personal history and memories attached to them. For example, I remember purloining the the pushbutton and toggle switches out of an Electronics Associates, Inc. Pace 261 analog computer back in 1979. I think the BNC connector, fuse holder, and probably some other parts came from that analog computer too.

Construction/mechanical notes

The power supply, oscillator, and most of the frequency divider circuitry is mounted directly on the chassis, everything else is on phenolic terminal boards mounted either above or below the chassis. I bought blank terminal boards and swaged in the Keystone Electronics #1559-2 turret terminals where they were needed using the Keystone TL-2 punch tool in a drill press. I bought 600 terminals and had only 4 left when I was finished. Not only is it hard to believe there are that many terminals in the clock, but also that about 500 feet of wire was used.

I bought a supply of Soviet A101 dekatrons to use for the project, mainly because they were the cheapest ones I could find that are register tubes, meaning that all the cathodes are available externally. I soon discovered why they were cheap; the sockets must be made of nearly pure unobtainium. My solution was fire up the lathe and make my own sockets out of 1.5 inch black delrin rod and Molex connector crimp terminals. I used terminals I already had on hand, and unfortunately I don’t know the Molex part number for them. They look similar to the 01189 series, except the overall length is only 0.77”, which is good because it makes for a shorter socket. Here’s a drawing showing the dimensions of the housings I made.

Choosing a type and size of cabinet for the clock was a tough decision. I wanted something that would show off some of the inner workings, but it had to have a military or commercial look and be authentic from that era, so anything home made with wood or plastic was out of the question. I had done some prototyping to get a pretty good idea of the amount of circuitry needed, and therefore an estimate of the volume required, so when I saw an unused but nicely aged Bud C-975 cabinet with a hinged top and wrinkle finish on Ebay, I jumped on it. As a side note, I found the C-975 in the 1959 Allied catalog for $9.01, or only $7.20 if you bought 50 of them. As you might guess, fitting 94 tubes and all the other parts into a 9x15x11” box got a bit tight in places, but that was one of the challenges that made the project fun.

I wanted an aluminum front panel with engraved and paint-filled markings like the old military and HP gear, so I had it made by Front Panel Express . At the same time I had them make the sheet metal panels that the nixie and dekatron sockets are mounted on. I was very happy with the results and the cost was reasonable, about $240 for all three pieces. I doubt they’re of any use to anyone, but just in case you’re curious, here are the design files for thefront panel and sub panel.

The rest of the aluminum parts I made myself, borrowing the use of sheetmetal brake, shear, and corner notcher when needed. Since I didn’t have a 2” punch, I made the holes in the chassis side panels with a flycutter in a drill press. The 3” hole for the power transformer was made the same way. Making holes with a flycutter like this is a bit dangerous, and all the cutting oil flying around made a mess, but the results were great.

I wanted a yellowish/gold passivated finish which is electrically conductive applied to all the aluminum parts because that is typical of what was, and still is, used on aluminum electronic chassis. I found a local plating shop that could do the chromate conversion process (aka Iridite or Alodine) using hexavalent chromium. I’m glad I was able to get the authentic toxic process rather than the lame ROHS version that will probably be the only one available some day.

I’ve always liked the way high quality vintage electronics had the component reference designators printed on both sides of the chassis, often sealed in with a clear or yellowish coating, applied either through a rectangular mask, or sloppily brushed on. That look was a must-have for the clock. Since the chassis had to be formed and plated before printing, there was no way I could think of to use a silk screen, at least not on the inside of the chassis. I decided to use a rubber pad printing set, the kind where you assemble individual letters in a holder, press on an ink pad, and print on the chassis. I used a StazOn permanent ink pad for this. When all the printing was done I used blue painter’s tape to mask off everything except a small window around each reference designator and then sprayed it with urethane. It was a very time consuming process, but it looks authentic and serves the intended purpose of protecting the markings.

Cost notes

I wanted to know how much it would have cost for a hobbyist to build a clock like this in 1959, and what that amount would be in today’s dollars. I gathered my information from a variety of internet sources, but my favorite was the old Allied Electronics catalogs at

Parts cost in 1959 (from old catalogs and my estimates): $2130 [≈ Typical household annual food spending on restaurants, 2009]
1959 parts cost inflated to 2013 dollars [≈ One Starbucks latte per day for a year], (inflation factor 1959 to 2013 = 8.0): $17040 [≈ Per capita income - France, 2005]

The median income of a fairly well paid “technical worker” (engineer) in 1959 was $8600 [≈ Average used car]. 

If you’re interested in the component cost data I used to come up with the total, it’s in this text file

So at a cost of about 25% of a year’s salary, it’s unlikely that a clock like this would have ever been built by a hobbyist - at least not a hobbyist who was still married by the time it was over! What was my cost in 2013? About$1600 [≈ High-end bicycle], low enough to keep peace in the house.