The word “neon” has become discombobulated ever since its introduction into popular usage. Strictly speaking, neon is one of the noble gases. On the Periodic Table of Elements, neon is represented with the symbol “Ne”. Its atomic number is 10 and is found in group 18 of the noble gases. It was discovered in 1898 as one of the residual elements in normal, dry air. When neon is electrically charged, it exhibits a reddish orange glow.
In popular usage, neon lighting has come to mean any various glowing glass tube lighting, usually thought of in the advertising signs. For some reason, some cultures equate neon lighting with conventional fluorescent light tubes, even though everyday fluorescent tubes contain mercury, not neon. I suppose some people have difficulty pronouncing the word, fluorescent and have fallen back on the word, neon.
We humans like bright, shiny objects, so it’s no surprise that neon advertising signs became popular, early on. The development of the basic, red, neon sign happened through the independent efforts of several scientists.
The earliest attempts at causing gases to glow withing glass tubing was accomplished in 1858, by Heinrich Geissler and physicist Julius Plucker. The caused light to emit from a
mercury vapor filled tube using static electricity. Geissler was an accomplished glass-bender whose tubes were used in various research developments in many fields. Dr. Plucker began using “Geissler Tubes” to study the spectra of ionized chemicals.
Other scientists conducted similar experiments with various gases within the “electric discharge devices”. Basically, these devices consist of a transparent container, like a Geissler Tube, in which a gas is energized by electrical voltage, the end result is a glowing light. This was demonstrated by Daniel McFarlan Morre’s invention of the “Moore Tube”. This was a Geissler Tube that exploited energized nitrogen.
In 1898, William Ramsey and M.W. Travers of London, England, discovered neon gas. They liquefied regular air and found traces of the rare gas by distilling the liquid into its chemical ingredients. They found that neon is present to the extent of 1 part in 65,000 parts of normal atmosphere.
In 1902, French chemist, engineer, and inventor Georges Claude developed the Claude system for liquefying air. The process enables the production of mass quantities of liquid argon, nitrogen, oxygen, and other gases. Of course, one of those gases is neon. Claude
formed a partnership with entrepreneur Paul Delorme to found L’Air Liquide, S.A. in Paris. The company has since grown to multinational status.Claude was the first scientist to experiment with neon inside of a Geissler Tube. He was motivated to find a use for the quantities of the neon gas byproduct found, when liquifying gas. He invented a type of nonreactive electrode that is large enough to endure prolonged ionized gas bombardment without overheating or flickering. We can find this invention still in use within fluorescent tubes and coiled CFL bulbs.
In early 1910, Claude blended his processes and inventions that enabled him to economically manufacture lighting that utilized energized neon gas. He filed for a patent for his technique on March 7, 1910. Claude was convinced that there was a great commercial potential for his new invention. He formed the company, Claude Neon Lights to exploit his research. The first public display and demonstration of Claude’s neon light was at the Paris Motor Show on December 3, 1910. About two years later, the first commercial neon sign was sold to a Paris barber by Claude’s business associate Jaques Fonseque.
Neon signage entered the United States in 1923. Claude charged $24,000 to Earle Anthony’s Packard Auto dealership in Los Angeles for two signs. The two signs read, simply, “Packard”. The new neon signs were an instant success. The public soon
dubbed the signs, “liquid fire”.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s creative neon signs were installed across the continent from L.A. to New York. As the years went by the signs became larger and more elaborate. Signs were in common use for motels, diners, and movie theaters during the 1940s and 50s. Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada casinos used neon in massive quantities.
As people moved to the suburbs and electricity prices increased, neon signs became less popular. The existing tubes deteriorated and many signs were broken. Neon became associated with abandoned and decrepit downtown districts. Neon went terribly out of favor.
Neon was not dead, only hibernating. In the 1980s, many cities began downtown restoration projects. Some, like Miami, Florida, renovated their vintage signs. Times Square, New York became a driving force, as city planners brought back neon. Las Vegas, Nevada has a neon museum that features renovated signs that had been discarded earlier. The Museum of Neon Art upped the ante in Los Angeles.
Even though there are simulated “neon” LED signs, neon and argon tubes are still brighter and are the tubes of choice for the most useful lighted signs. The popularity of retro-design in homes and businesses has further helped re-establish neon in today’s culture.