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History of Neon Signs


Neon signs are the new trend. From hip restaurants and bars to modern offices, custom neon signs embellish their architecture and make the place exuberant and impressive. A custom neon sign attracts youngsters and gives a retro look that is admirable by all. While neon lighting on custom neon signs seems like a relatively new fashion, you will be surprised to know that the history of neon signs dates back to 1857 and Heinrich Geissler. Before we get into the history of neon signs, let's talk a bit about neon lights and the technology behind them.


What are neon lights? 


Neon lights consist of electrified glass tubes or bulbs which emit a dazzling glow. These cases are filled with a small amount of neon (or other noble) gases at very low pressure (lower than the atmospheric pressure). When the atoms of the gas get excited due to the energy supplied to them through the cathode strips attached to the ends of the tube, they reach higher energy levels.


The energy released by these atoms to get back to their original states is released in the form of photons that emit these colorful lights. The colors these photons produce will depend on the nature of the gas-filled inside it and the energy levels of the ionized gas particles.


A custom neon sign can be designed in a range of shapes and colors, depending on the decor style. Restaurants and bars will go for the edgier and more fun custom neon sign designs, while office decor will involve a more elegant use of custom neon signs.


But where did this trend of neon signs start? And when were neon lights invented? What's the history behind the technology of neon lighting? When did neon signs start selling commercially? Are neon signs used in art? It seems like there is an exciting history behind the neon sign technology, and it is definitely worth finding out. Let's dive in.


History of Neon Lights


You will be astonished to find that the theory behind neon sign technology dates as far back as 1675, even before the age of electricity. The French astronomer Jean Picard was experimenting with a mercury barometer tube when he observed a faint glow emitting from it. When he shook the tube, a glow called barometric light could be seen.


Even though the cause of light was not understood when the phenomenon was observed, it was later found that the light occurred due to the static electricity in the barometer light. With the progress in studying the principles of electricity, this theory of neon lighting was developed for further use.


The German glassblower and physicist Heinrich Geissler is considered to be the Father of Fluorescent Lamps. He invented the Geissler Tube in 1855. The Geissler tube was essentially a glass tube with electrodes on both its ends. It contained gas at a partial vacuum pressure inside it. Geissler experimented with arc current through numerous gases to produce light.


This tube was the basis of neon lighting. Apart from that, mercury vapour lights as well as the popularly used fluorescent lights are also based on this technology. Even sodium lamps use a similar technique. It is interesting that when Geissler observed this phenomenon, its importance was understood much later - when electric generators were invented.


Scientists started experimenting with Geissler tubes, power configurations, and a variety of gases. During these experiments, it was discovered that when a Geissler tube was placed under low pressure and an external electrical voltage was applied to the setup, and the gas would produce luminescence.


Next, come William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers. They discovered the neon gas in London in 1898. The word neon derives from the Greek word 'neos,' which means 'the new gas.' Neon is a rare gaseous element and is a noble gas. It occurs naturally in the atmosphere and forms 0.0018% of the air.


How did the process become cost-effective?


Neon can be extracted from the atmosphere through the liquefaction of air and separated from the other gases by fractional distillation. Ramsay and Travers invented a rudimentary neon lamp, but since neon was rare, the invention was not feasible. In 1904, Daniel McFarlan Moore installed a commercial Moore Tube, which used an electric arc that ran using the help of nitrogen and carbon dioxide to produce light.


It was the French engineer, chemist, and inventor Georges Claude who discovered a method to isolate neon from the air in a cost-effective manner, thus making the technology of new light affordable. Claude demonstrated the whole process at the Paris Motor Show in December 1910.


The neon lamp was invented through the experiments of William Ramsay & Morris W. Travers and Georges Claude. Georges Claude was the first to display the neon lamp to the public on December 11, 1910, in Paris. At the beginning of his experiment, Claude used Daniel McFarlan Moore's design but later on devised his own design of a neon lamp.


Georges Claude got the neon lighting tube patented on 19 January 1915 with the U.S. Patent 1,125,476. Claude also formed his company called Claude Neon which introduced neon gas signs in 1923 to the United States of America. Their first sale was two signs for a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles. Earle C. Anthony bought these first commercial neon signs for $24,000. The neon signs were engraved "Packard."


How did Neon Lights gain popularity?


Neon signs gained popularity after that and are still a prime decor choice in various arenas. It is used widely in advertising, especially on billboards and door signs. Stores often use trendy custom neon signs to attract customers. Shopping malls, restaurants, and bars are always lit up with neon signs. Since the 1980s, neon lighting has also become an art movement.


There are even museums in the USA dedicated to neon light artistry, such as the Museum of Neon Art, the Neon Museum, and the American Sign Museum. The history of neon signs is fascinating, full of brilliant inventions and curiosities which produced such a revolution in sign advancement.