Introduction: Fireflies in a Jar

About: If someone says "that doesn't sound like you," does it mean that you're perhaps not who you think you are? Or is it possible that they are not themselves because they don't recognize people they know?
This is a simple project that uses NE-2 neon bulbs in a group of 'relaxation oscillators.' In essence, an RC circuit charges a capacitor at a rate determined by a resistor and discharges the cap though a neon bulb to start the process over. The effect is a blinking lamp. With a group of these oscillators you get multiple blinking bulbs and the effect is similar to fireflies. Put them
into a jar and Bob's your uncle. The neon lamps operate at 90v (+/-) and so a half wave rectifier on 110-120vac works well without over-voltage to the neon lamp. The half wave rectifier is a fancy way of saying "put a diode on the wall socket wires."

I made this project using junk parts and so I don't have part numbers or retail sources to offer. However, these are all very common parts and are available from many sources. For instance, you can get the power cord from that lamp in the living room no one ever turns on. By the way, this project is oriented towards American house current @ 120vac. Other nations should use a transformer to reduce their voltage appropriately.

You will need:

10 1uf capacitors 150v
10 1 meg ohm resistors 1/4 watt
10 NE-2 neon lamps
2   Diodes (300v)
Shrink Tubing (1/8 in)
Power cord and male wall plug


Wire cutters
Soldering Iron
Hot Glue Gun (Epoxy OK too)
Rotary Tool (optional)
Thinking Cap*

* You will be dealing with AC line voltages, so think before you touch anything. Capacitors store a charge, so they can still give a shock when the unit is unplugged. Always 'ground out' the circuit before touching it. Electric shock has been associated with burns, organ failure, heart failure, stroke, nervousness, anxiety, indigestion, flatulence, epithet outbursts and finding religion.

Step 1:

The first step is to mount the capacitors to the lid of the jar. I chose a jar with a sprayed on plastic liner/seal. It wasn't really necessary but I wanted to avoid the possibility of a short circuit. The capacitors I had were rectangular, but they come as barrel packages too. It doesn't matter what they are so long as they are non-polarized 1uF caps. Glue these to the lid. You will want to join the legs of one side of the capacitors --this will be your "ground." I soldered the legs to a piece of stripped wire and then cut off the excess leg,

Step 2:

Next, we will solder the end of a resistor and a piece of insulated wire to the unused leg of the capacitors. We will also solder another length of matching wire to the "ground" leg of the capacitor. I used shrink tubing to cover the resistor/wire/leg junction to hold the resistor so it faced down, and to "pretty up" the solder junction. You will need to do this for all 10 of the capacitors. When done, each capacitor should have a pair of wires sticking up.

With that done, run a piece of stripped wire around the capacitors and solder the free end of the resistor to it. Cut off excess resistor leg. Solder them so that the wire is held up off of the jar lid. It should be stiff enough to be able to bend it into place the way you want it and stay there.

Step 3:

This is a view of the "back" side of the capacitors and resistors. Yours should look similar to this. Keep in mind that when done, there will be a glass jar over all of this, and so you don't have to worry about exposed wires shocking people or getting short circuited. From this picture, you can see the two "sides of the circuit to which you will attach power. You can also see that the NE-2 lamps are soldered with each of their legs attaching to one of the wire pairs rising up from the capacitors.

Step 4:

Solder each of the NE-2 lamps to a capacitor wire pair. It is wise to spread the legs of the NE-2 lamps to keep the wires apart from one another. Shorting these wires would likely pop the associated capacitor when power is applied, which might or might not pop your wall socket's circuit breaker or fuse. At any rate, it would smell bad and be quite unnerving, possibly implicating an undergarment change.

Step 5:

You can use shrink tubing to protect the NE-2 legs from shorting. I usually use it when I make these, but I left it off so that the connections would be obvious. This is a safety step --but given the protective jar, it's a step that can be skipped without a lot of risk of catastrophe. If you used a fairly stiff wire and separated the NE-2 legs, they should stay that way. 

Step 6:

It is now time to solder the diodes in place. Note the diodes show their polarity with a silver band at one end. Solder the "ground" side of the capacitors (center wire in the photo)  to the diode leg without the band so that the band is on the power cord end. Solder the other diode to the resistor connecting wire with the band facing the resistors.

Now, if you have a rotary tool with an appropriate grinding stone, drill a hole in the glass jar about an inch or so from the mouth. I suggest that you fit the jar onto the lid assembly first and make a mark about where the diodes are. That way you won't have extra wire inside the jar. It's already going to be tight for space. Anyway, make a hole and feed the power cord through it. Tie a knot in the power cord  about three or so inches from the end. This will be a strain relief so the wire will not pull on the diodes.

If you do not have a way to make a hole in the jar, then make one in the lid. If you use this method, you will need to find a few rubber "feet" to stick on the lid. This will allow the power cord to pass underneath without tipping the jar. Make sure to use a rubber grommet to protect the power cord from the sharp edge of the drilled hole!!  I suggest using five rubber feet if you use this method.

Step 7:

Here is the completed project. You can adjust where the lamps sit in the jar by simply bending the wires. You will want to have them at different heights and be more or less random about their position. This will give a bit more realism to the effect. The firefly lamp draws a very tiny amount of current doesn't generate any heat in operation. Since the lamps have a lifetime of 10,000 hours and do not operate continuously, these things last a long, long time. Decades. 

There it is, as promised: Bob's your uncle.*

*this may be news to Bob...

Step 8:

Here's a schematic of the relaxation oscillator.