Review: Niwa Lunokhod
Watches, watches, watches. We’ve become used to the idea that innovation in watchmaking means an extra button or a little gizmo. A chronograph becomes a flyback. A calendar becomes a perpetual calendar. It’s all very … ordinary. How about a watch with a vacuum fluorescent display?
I’ll be honest, I spent a long, long time reading up about vacuum fluorescent display tubes—also known as VFD tubes—and I still know sweet nothing about them. They look like light bulbs, they glow like a lightbulb, but for some reason that I can’t explain, they are not lightbulbs. Something about electrons.
As far as I can tell, those little glass tubes are full of gas—neon, I think—and a little metal cathode. What is a cathode? In terms even I can barely understand, it’s the part of the electrical thing from which the electricity flows from. Think of a battery: you’ve got the cathode, the positive end where the electricity leaves the battery, and the anode, the negative end the electricity comes back to. Or something.
So, there’s a cathode suspended in the neon gas. Electricity is introduced to said cathode. There’s some more metal, the anode—and you can probably guess what happens next. The electricity makes its way from the cathode to the anode, and that’s where the magic happens. Well, science. Basically magic.
That magic is known by the rather unmagical name, cathodoluminescence. Those electrons leaping from the cathode impact the phosphor coated anode, which then glows—rather than like a lightbulb, which uses the current to heat a filament and release light that way. The colour is determined by the phosphor, ranging from deep, warm red to a cool blueish green.
You know the way digital displays like your old Casio watch have those numbers formed from a squared-off figure of eight? That design was first created with these little tubes. They’d have one for every digit, others even for dots and dashes, and that was how the numbers were displayed in many 1970s electronics.
These VFD tubes were an evolution of the 1955 “Numeric Indicator Experimental Number One” tubes—better known as Nixies. Those simply had cathodes the shape of each number stacked up in a row, with a controller determining which would be illuminated. The VFD could be more compact and flexible.
And it was indeed the LCD that killed off both the Nixie and VFD tubes. Technology, as it always does, comes and goes. But that doesn’t mean it’s game over for these little fellas, because it just so happens that the Russians made millions upon millions of the things—and many of them are still around today. They’re robust and they last a lifetime—so why not make a watch out of them?
Well, here’s why you don’t make a watch out of them: because they’re massive. The people behind this particular watch, Niwa, do indeed make a full-on Nixie watch and it is very cool—but it’s also massive, like 50mm wide by 17mm thick. Not the wearing material of your average human watch collector.
So, they went back to the drawing board to build something a bit more compact. Not tiny, not at all, but more compact. This Lunokhod measures in at 42mm by 12.5mm tall, proportions that are much more palatable to normal-sized humans.
We’ve got VFD tubes here, but specifically indicator tubes—that is, little lights that would’ve originally told you that something was turned on, or a certain function was selected. Theyre much smaller and therefore make the watch much more compact. Does make reading the watch a lot trickier though.
There’s a knack to it. On the left you’ve got a strip of lights numbered zero to five, and in the middle you’ve got another strip numbered zero to nine. Reading is done in stages: first, the hour, which will be read first in the left strip and then the middle. One in the morning be would zero on the left and one in the middle. Five in the afternoon would be—if you have twenty-four-hour mode set—one on the left and seven in the middle.
You get a moment to read that, and then the display switches to the minutes. Same story, the first half of the minutes is read on the left and the second in the middle. So, nine minutes is zero on the left, nine in the middle. Forty-eight minutes is four on the left and eight in the middle. It’ll then switch to seconds, rhythmically running down the line of orange lights in a very hypnotic way. The big greeny-blue tube on the right just tells you there’s plenty of battery left.
The problem I had is the tubes are so mesmerising to look at that reading the time often takes second priority when it all lights up. It’s activated by your wrist movement, which leaves you flicking your wrist absent-mindedly just to look at it go. A digital display or even an analogue one struggles to compete with this enthralling glow.
It’s not just the display that’s weird with this watch. Setting it isn’t done with a crown, rather a magnet on a stick. You tap one side for the mode, the other to adjust, a bit like the buttons on a Casio… except with a magnet on a stick. From there you can set the time, choose between twelve and twenty-four-hour mode and set the angle of activation.
It’s electric of course, so it needs charging. A charge will take three hours, but it’ll last three months. The greeny-blue tube will stop working when the battery hits ten percent, and it’ll all shut down at three percent to preserve the programming. This watch is in heat-coloured titanium, but there’s a whole bunch of materials and finishes available, including steel, PVD black and mirror polish.
There’s also a little sliver of the Muonionalusta meteorite in the back as well, which is a nice little touch that really didn’t need to be there but is very much welcome. It’s the element that gives you a clue as to the watch’s theme, unless you already knew that Lunokhod meant lunar rover in Russian.
It’s a watch that captures the feeling of the space race and the technology present during the time, when America and Russia competed to get to the moon first. I suppose the irony is that, like the rover and other equipment created for the Russian lunar program, these little glowing tubes were never used for what they were intended for. At least they get a second chance today.
If you like the look of the Niwa Lunokhod watch and want one for yourself, prices start at a reasonable $380. It’s a cool and quirky watch that does something very different to what we’re used to, as well as finding a use for outdated tech in a way we’re all very comfortable with, what with being familiar with the mechanical watch.