Sign History: Neon

They welcome us to eat,  let us know if there is any room in the inn and inform us whether the business we’re driving past is open or not. Neon signs have become staples of American metropolitan signage.

Neon’s day to day uses are overshadowed only by their presence as advertising icons. Whether it’s Vegas Vic the casino cowboy, the Wrigley Field banner in Chicago, or the animated running Greyhound dog. Neon is burned into the cultural conscience in a way that is uniquely American.

Sign History - Neon

Image Credit to Martin Abegglen | Flickr


How Do Neon Signs Work?

Nearly unchanged through history, neon signs are made by putting an electrical current through a hollow glass tube filled with a light-emitting element (most commonly neon). Other elements are sometimes added to the mixture to change the color of the light. Different Colors come from different elements like:

  • Neon produces red
  • Argon produces a blue color
  • Helium produces a pale yellow color
  • Krypton produces a greyish green color
  • Xenon produces a grey/blue-grey color

Although these gases produce a small spectrum of colors, most of the time colored lighting is a product of fluorescent coating on the inside of the glass tube and not a clear tube with a colored gas inside. Most commercial tubes will have neon and argon as their only noble gases.


Production of Neon Signs

Neon signs begin their journey when an artist takes and bends a glass tube to match a pattern drawn out by a designer. This pattern could be a picture, writing or a straight line to emphasize or create a border around either of the two.

The glass tubing is bent through a complicated process in which heat is applied and air is blown into the tube to keep the diameter consistent throughout.

Afterward, a special electrode (called a cold cathode electrode) is welded to the end. This electrode will provide the current that will make the gas inside the tube light up. Once in place, the tube is hooked up to a vacuum pump to remove the air and pump high levels of current through it (much higher than will be applied in regular use) in a process known as bombardment.

Sign History - Neon

Cold Cathode Electrodes are connected to a current source and bombarded with excess current.
Image Credit to Wikimedia Commons

At this point, the tube is allowed to cool and the noble gases (the elements that will fill the tube) are added. If the tube is to be lit by argon, a small amount of mercury is added to increase the vibrancy of the normally dull blue-lavender gas.

Finally, the electricity is connected and the portion of the neon that is not supposed to be visible is dipped in an opaque black paint to cover it up before mounting.

So as you can see, creating these fascinating lights is a long and artisanal process. It wouldn’t be financially feasible at all unless they lasted forever – good thing they do. That leads us to their history.


History of Neon Signs

Neon signs have been in use since the early 1900s. Their use followed the discovery of neon as a noble gas in 1898. Their predecessor, the Geissler tube, was used beforehand and would contain sodium, air or mercury vapor to produce light.

Neon lights became a novelty among scientists and innovators, but it took half a decade before neon gas as readily available for commercial application. This availability was the result of the French entrepreneur Georges Claude, whose company Air Liquide began to produce large quantities of neon as a byproduct of the companies air liquefaction process.

By 1910, Claude had enough knowledge of the workings of neon to demo two 39-foot bright red neon tubes at the Paris Motor Show. His associate Jacques Fonseque saw massive commercial possibilities for this technology in the field of signage and advertising.

In 1913, the first official commercial neon sign was born advertising the Italian vermouth Cinzano to the open sky of Paris France. Shortly afterward, the Paris Opera endorsed the new and vibrant sign technology by adorning their entrance in 1919.

The robust lighting system made the jump across the pond to the United Sates of America in 1923 when Georges Claude and Claude Neon sold two “Packard” signs to an eponymous auto dealership in Los Angeles. The signs were purchased for $1,250 (almost $20,000 adjusted for inflation).

Neon lighting caught fire in the United States and become a fixture of outdoor signage and advertising. Americans at the time knew it as “liquid fire,” and would drive miles to stop and stare at it’s unique presentation.

Sign History - Neon

This Vegas Vic lookalike can be seen in Laughlin, NV
Image Credit to Arturo Sotillo | Flickr

The next (and final) advancement in the world of liquid fire came in 1926 when Jacques Risler patented fluorescent tube coatings that could give neon lights a wider range of color. Further research into phosphors, following World War 2, paved the way for the spectrum to widen even further.

Today, advertisers can choose between almost 100 colors for their liquid fire lights.

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