A Brief History of Neon Signs

A Brief History of Neon Signs

We all love neon signs for their cool, colourful, and exciting style. Neon signs are very popular in interior design and in commercial settings today, but the neon signs we know and love have a long history dating back to developments and discoveries in 1675 and the 1850s.

In this article, we will take a look at the history of neon signs.

 

The early history of neon signs

The theory behind neon sign technology goes back as far as 1675.

This was a time before electricity and when the French astronomer Jean Picard noticed a small glow of light emitting from mercury in a barometer tube.

Even though the glow would occur when the tube was shaken because of static electricity, the phenomenon was not understood at that point in history.

Although it was not understood, the science behind it was investigated and years later when electricity was discovered and mastered it enabled scientists to start inventing many different kinds of lighting.

Neon signs in particular, are descended from the work of glass-blower Heinrich Geissler and physicist Julius Plücker.

The work of the two men produced glowing glass tubes in Germany in the 1850s.

The Geissler tubes were used in labs and by miners in France. While Geissler tubes contained air and other types of gases, including carbon dioxide and mercury vapor. These were used as signs and lamps in the 1890s.

As for the neon signs we know and love as bright urban signs with that distinctive glow, they were first introduced in 1910 by French inventor Georges Claude. The first neon lights used glass tubes similar to the earlier versions made in Germany and used the work of chemists Morris Travers and Sir William Ramsey to utilise neon gas. Travers and Ramsey discovered that microscopic quantities of neon gas occur naturally in our atmosphere.

It might be surprising to many but neon is actually the fifth most abundant element by mass in the universe, after hydrogen, helium, oxygen, and carbon. Despite this only 0.0018% of the Earth’s atmosphere is made up of the odorless and colourless gas.

Ramsey and Travers were the first to isolate the element, first with liquid argon, which was evaporated to create krypton.

 

Commercialisation of neon lighting

The first tube to contain neon was made for a scientific study and not for a lamp or signage purposes. Georges Claude advanced this discovery by experimenting and finding that when neon gas was combined with other elements and fed an electrical charge it displayed bright colourful light within the sealed tube. 

Shortly after this discovery, Claude presented the first neon lamp to an expo in Paris in 1910 before going on to patent neon lighting tubes in 1915 ready to commercialise the invention. The first advertising sign made with neon was utilised for a hairdressing business in Paris. In 1923, a motoring company named Packard Motors took two of Claude’s early neon signs and imported them to the USA. The company used them for advertising on their Downtown Los Angeles showroom, bringing about the concept of neon sign advertising in America.

Thanks to his patent, Claude had a monopoly on neon lighting in the 1920s. Before long the patents expired and his trade secrets were leaked meaning others could produce neon lights too.

 

Neon lighting takes over the world

By this point neon lighting was already a rapidly expanding technology, that would later be used everywhere from the Moulin Rouge in Paris, the Las Vegas Strip, and New York’s Times Square.

The lighting also featured prominently at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition in 1933. A few years later in 1938 the World’s Fair in New York, General Motors erected a giant neon sign reading ‘Futurama’ to light the way towards the car makers exhibition on the World of Tomorrow.

The following decades would see neon provide a vibrant glow turning normal buildings into round the clock advertising for all kinds of businesses.

By the middle of the century, the lighting was even being adopted for more political purposes in the Soviet Union capital cities to illuminate the facades of buildings and emulate capitalist cities from western Europe. The mass introduction of neon signs was an attempt to make communist citizens view their surroundings with the sort of after-dark glamour of other major cities in the west.

Around this period in the 1960s neon began to be phased out and replaced with other cheaper and less labour intensive products. Businesses didn’t consider it to be the most viable type of electric lighting signage for their brand and it had lost it’s cool and futuristic feel.

 

The decline of neon signs

Part of the loss of appeal resulted from the global economic downturn in the 1970s. Replacing broken or flickering signs was not a priority for owners who were struggling and they added to the feel of hard times, almost a symbol of decline. Neon had gone from futuristic to dated.

The Neon Museum in Las Vegas and California’s Museum of Neon Art display works of neon art and preserve the history.

 Despite this neon is not just consigned to museums. Today neon is having a revival. There are cleaner alternatives that are more cost-effective but can still give a cool retro neon style.

 

Resurgence and new LED neon technology

Neon signs have become very popular as decorations for people’s homes and for office artwork. In addition, it’s hard to find coffee shops and bars or restaurants that don’t use clever slogans or images made from LED neon lighting on their premises. Social media is a big part of the reason for the new popularity of neon. Allowing people to capture a snapshot with the sign and let people know where they are and what they are doing.  

At Yellowpop we make our LED Neon signs by hand so you can have any design you choose. This means LED neon signs can’t be mass-produced and this gives it an artisanal feel.

In its century-long history, neon has had quite a journey and been through ups and downs. In the past decade, it has had a resurgence, as people are rightly beginning to see neon lighting and neon signs as an art form.

If you would like some help in designing the best LED neon light for your needs, get in touch with us today!

 

  • Image: Crowds engulf Broadway on New Year’s Eve, January 1964. Photograph by George F. Mobley, National Geographic
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