Although it resembles a vacuum tube in appearance, its operation does not depend on thermionic emission of electrons from a heated cathode. It is therefore called a cold-cathode tube (a form of gas filled tube), or a variant of neon lamp. Such tubes rarely exceed 40 °C (104 °F) even under the most severe of operating conditions in a room at ambient temperature.
The most common form of nixie tube has ten cathodes in the shapes of the numerals 0 to 9 (and occasionally a decimal point or two), but there are also types that show various letters, signs and symbols. Because the numbers and other characters are arranged one behind another, each character appears at a different depth, giving Nixie based displays a distinct appearance.
Nixies were used as numeric displays in early digital voltmeters, multimeters, frequency counters and many other types of technical equipment. They also appeared in costly digital time displays used in research and military establishments, and in many early electronic desktop calculators, including the first: the Sumlock-Comptometer ANITA Mk VII of 1961 and even the first electronic telephone switchboards. Later alphanumeric versions in fourteen segment display format found use in airport arrival/departure signs and stock ticker displays. Some elevators used nixies to display floor numbers.
The early Nixie displays were made by a small vacuum tube manufacturer called Haydu Brothers Laboratories, and introduced in 1955 by Burroughs Corporation, who purchased Haydu and owned the name Nixie as a trademark. The name Nixie was derived by Burroughs from "NIX I", an abbreviation of "Numeric Indicator eXperimental No. 1." Similar devices that functioned in the same way were patented in the 1930s, and the first mass-produced display tubes were introduced in 1954 by National Union Co. under the brand name Inditron. However, their construction was cruder, their average lifetime was shorter, and they failed to find many applications due to their complex periphery.
Citing dissatisfaction with the aesthetics of modern digital displays and a nostalgic fondness for the styling of obsolete technology, significant numbers of electronics enthusiasts in recent years have shown interest in reviving nixies. Unsold tubes that have been sitting in warehouses for decades are being brought out and used, the most common application being in homemade digital clocks. This is somewhat ironic, since during their heyday, nixies were generally considered too expensive for use in mass-market consumer goods such as clocks. This recent surge in demand has caused prices to rise significantly, particularly for large tubes.
The largest type known to be in the hands of collectors, the Rodan CD-47/GR-414 (220 mm [8.7 in] tall), have been sold for hundreds of dollars apiece, but these are extremely rare and only found in a few areas of the world by persistent and fortunate seekers. Prices for other large types displaying digits over 25 mm (1 in) tall have risen by double, triple or more between 1998 and 2005.