The History Of Neon Lights

We always enjoy history videos from [The History Guy] but they don’t always cover technology history. When they do, though, we enjoy them twice as much as with the recent video he posted on the history of neon signs. Of course, as he points out, many neon lights don’t have actual neon in them — they use various noble gasses depending on the color you want. Sure, some have neon, but the name has stuck.

The back part of the video is more about the signs themselves, but the early portion talks about [William Ramsay], a Scot chemist who started extracting component gasses out of the atmosphere. The first one found was argon and then helium. Krypton and neon were not far behind. The other noble gas, Xenon, also fell to his experiments. He and another scientist won the Nobel for this work.

[The History Guy] also mentions Geissler tubes, a name we’ve only read in old radio books before. It is interesting that just about all vacuum and gas-filled tubes evolved from that technology. After all, a neon light is really a type of gas-filled tube and so is a common neon bulb.

Commercialization of neon bulbs had to wait for [Georges Claude] to learn how to liquefy air efficiently. He formed a company you may have heard of: Air Liquide which competed with [Carl von Linde’s] earlier system for producing atmospheric gasses and the Linde company that you’ve also probably heard of if you buy any sort of industrial gasses. Of course, access to high voltage was also a requirement.

Oddly enough, [Claude] didn’t think of using them for eye-catching signs. He wanted to use them as a form of artificial illumination. It was an associate, [Jaques Fonseque] who saw the possibility of using the electric lights to create advertising signs. In 1913 a Cinzano sign appeared in Paris and by 1919, the entrance to the Paris Opera had neon tube lighting.

Commercial use of neon light is far less common than it used to be. However, neon light as art is making something of a comeback, something that happens periodically. If you want to make your own replica with no glass blowing, try EL wire. We’ve seen quite a few faux neon projects and they look great.

12 thoughts on “The History Of Neon Lights

        1. 99% of the Radon would have decayed into polonium after 25.4 days (and then into further isotopes along that decay chain) or 90% gone after 12.7 days or 99.9% gone after 38.1 days). So no idea if it is pretty or not, gathering enough radon fast enough to see at the same scale as any other noble gas tube would be difficult. I would guess, in theory at least, that one could possibly be created at a nuclear reprocessing plant and powered on for a few minutes after creation. But I can not imagine that it would be allowed due to standard risk and safety management policies at nuclear facilities. Like would the inside of the tube be rapidly coated with a layer of polonium, lead and bismuth possibly short circuiting the high voltage supply ? I do not know!

  1. Almost all “neon” now is either neon which is bright orange red and is used in clear tubes or in tubes coated with a color dye. Everything else is argon and mercury, which emits in the UV and is used to excite a phosphor coating on the inside of the tube. These tubes are kind of cool because often times they look whitish on the outside but when excited produce a pretty color.

    1. Vast majority of new neon I see these days is of the phosphor colored tube variety. Considering the lower demand for neon signs these days it’s probably more efficient for the factories to just produce the mercury vapor mix and put it in tubes with colored phosphors or tubes with white phosphor and colored glass. Than to keep a supply of the different noble gases on hand and make the right mixtures for the desired color and even then your colors are limited

  2. I learned how to blow, bend, and shape neon in the 80’s. It takes great finesse and years of practice to do it well and I never did enough of it or long enough to become really good at it. Nowadays I take my drawings to the local neon shop where I have a good relationship with the proprietor. I still make neon art sometimes for myself or others, I just get him to blow the tubes. I was just at his shop yesterday actually, for the first time in a while. The art of neon had nearly died out and most of the glass blowers were retiring or dying off and very few young people were learning how to do it, especially since it takes years to truly master. But now he tells me he has had a big resurgence of business and is busier than he’s been in 20 years. There is a great demand for it now due to its retro look and there are still applications where LEDs just can’t compete or compare. I have commissioned him to blow me a neon Christmas tree for my holiday light show (Wizlights).

    1. Neon has a warmth that LEDs can’t match. It also photographs extremely well. I miss driving down boulevards at night, the ones where different motels competed to have the most eye catching neon sign and theme.

    2. About twenty years ago my wife worked at a scientific/industrial glass blowing shop. It was incredible and mesmerizing to watch those true artists at work. Similarly my chemistry department had a full time glassblower. They didn’t let the previous guy retire until they found a replacement which took three years. Finally, a small commercial lab I worked in regularly used a shop in Berkeley CA to produce our huge and often custom 100L reactors and associated condensers and other misc stuff. I never got to tour that shop but their work was likewise gorgeous. If you’ve ever seen one of those people at the fair making glass animals or whatever, you have no idea the skills needed for slinging a three foot condenser with like three people all manning different torches and stuff. Absolutely incredible.

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