A Brief History of NEON
Over the last 150 years the luminous tube industry has evolved from the simple laboratory experiments in the second half of the 19th century to an industry of world wide proportions. The first luminous tubes did not use neon or any other rare gas. In the late 1800’s scientist developed reliable and somewhat safe high voltage supplies and began running high voltages through many things to observe what would happen. Often, they tested to see how wide of an air gap the spark could jump. It was quickly observed that the spark gap was inversely proportional to the pressure of the air and it soon became apparent, that an evacuated glass tube was the ideal method for viewing light from gas discharges.
When British reseacher William Ramsey discovered the 5 rare gases between 1894-98, receiving the Noble Prize in 1904, it became possible for a French scientist, Georges Claude, to note that noble gases could be made to produce light discharges when electrical discharges were passed through them. This was the long desired method that scientists had been looking for, a form of practical lighting by glowworm or phosphorescent light, “Light without heat”.
By World War l, Claude had acquired many patents, but he had more on his mind than strictly scientific knowledge. He envisioned a lucrative market for his tubes in lighting and signage. Because neon gas produced the brightest light, it was used almost exclusively, and soon the generic “Neon Sign”, was born. By 1924, “Claude Neon” franchises appeared in 14 major cities across the United States. And in 1927, out of a total of 750 neon signs in New York City, 611 had been made by Claude Neon Lights, Inc.
There was a great period of creativity for neon in the years that followed, a period when many design and animation techniques were developed. Unfortunately, the economic conditions caused by the depression, slowed neon’s growth. However, one place neon did work its magic during this period, was on the exteriors of movie palaces, providing a colorfully glowing invitation to the fantasy world within.
Following World War ll, and the advent of plastics, manufacturers began promoting Plexiglas shadow boxes with fluorescent lighting, neon’s cousin, behind lettering and graphics. Neon was considered old fashioned, and was relegated to being used as a hidden light source. Today still, 75% of neon is used in this way.
During the last decade, neon has seen a rebirth, and artist, architects, and interior designers are begining to rediscover its exciting possibilities. One day, city planners will recognize neon’s value as an element of urban vitality, and come to realize that the bleakness of city centers is due, in part, to the absence of this colorful element. Neon tube constuction hasn’t changed much since the days of Claude Neon. Its still a handcrafted medium, and a glassbender heats and forms each letter one bend at a time. However, state of the art components, and much improved equipment, make the neon tube of today, superior to its predecessor.