Unveiling the Fascinating History of Neon Signs You Never Knew!

14 minutes read
Our enthusiasm for neon can be traced back a hundred years, the story is one of creativity and transformation. Read a brief history of neon signage.
The first neon signs were created in 1910 by Georges Claude, a French engineer and inventor. Claude, sometimes called “the Edison of France” had a background in gas lighting. He had been experimenting with electrically charged gases when he attended the Paris Motor Show in October 1910. There he saw the Geissler tubes and was intrigued by their colours. Claude realised the potential for creating a new form of advertising using these tubes.
He teamed up with a French company, Claude Neon, to create the first neon signs. The signs were created by filling glass tubes with a mixture of neon and other gases. The tubes were then sealed and placed in front of the electric lights. When the electricity was turned on, the gas in the tubes glowed brightly.
Neon signs quickly became popular, and by the 1920s there were thousands of them in use all over the world. They were especially popular in the United States, where they were used to advertise everything from restaurants to car dealerships. Neon signs were so popular that they appeared in movies and on television.
Today, neon signs are still used to advertise businesses, but they are also used for art and decoration. Neon art is created by bending and twisting the glass tubes into shapes.
  • The discovery of neon in 1898 led to the development of neon lights and signs. Georges Claude, a French engineer, was issued a patent in 1910 for an apparatus that could produce commercial quantities of neon gas. Claude then developed a neon tube that could be used in advertising.
  • The first neon signs were installed in Paris in 1912. These signs were installed in the United States in 1923. The first neon sign in the United States was installed in a car dealership in Los Angeles.
  • The first neon sign in the United States was installed in Times Square in New York City in 1926. The sign, which read “WELCOME TO NEW YORK,” was created by French engineer Georges Claude.
  • The first neon sign in Las Vegas was installed in 1929. The sign, which read “Lucky Strike,” was created by American engineer Thomas E. Powers.
  • The first neon sign in Los Angeles was installed in 1930. The sign, which read “HOLLYWOODLAND,” was created by American engineer Robert E. Eddy.
  • The first neon sign in San Francisco was installed in 1932. The sign, which read “PANAMA-PACIFIC INTERNATIONAL EXPOSITION,” was created by American engineer Claude Neon.
Fluorescent neon colours include purple, blue, green, yellow, pink, orange, and red. The fluorescent tube coatings typically last longer than the gas fill, so the fluorescent colours are usually the first to fade in a failing, old neon sign.
Neon signs were popularized in the 1920s and 1930s by Earl C. Anthony, president of the National Neon Lamp Company. Neon signs were introduced to the United States in 1923 by Georges Claude, who had produced the first neon signs in France.
The signs were initially produced by hand, but in 1927, Anthony’s company began mass-producing them, and by 1930, neon signs were in widespread use in the United States.
In the 1930s, Earl C. Anthony recruited a team of European artists to design neon signs for his company, and the company’s signs became known for their artistry.
In the 1940s and 1950s, neon signs became increasingly common, and they were used to advertise businesses such as hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs.
The widespread use of neon signs began to decline in the 1960s, as newer, more efficient technologies such as fluorescent lighting and LED lighting became available. However, neon signs have continued to be used for some.
He agrees to lease his lamps for $15 a month and a percentage of the profits, and the first franchise goes to a Chicago car dealer. It was an instant success. The brilliant colours of the signs and their incessant flashing captivated the public. Claude Neon signs began to appear in cities across the country and around the world. Claude himself became a star, appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1929.
By the early 1930s, the golden age of the neon sign was in full swing. In Times Square, giant billboards blazed with multi-coloured neon lights, advertising everything from cigarettes to soap. In Paris, the Eiffel Tower was adorned with a giant neon sign advertising Citroën cars. In Tokyo, a giant neon sign in the shape of a crab advertised a popular restaurant. Everywhere, it seemed, neon was the new language of advertising.
But the Great Depression of the 1930s brought hard times for the neon sign industry. Businesses went bankrupt, and many neon signs were turned off or simply abandoned. It was not until the end of World War II that the industry began to recover.
In the 1950s, a new generation of artists and designers began to experiment with neon, using it to create sculptures that were both functional and eye-catching. These artists were often inspired by the work of French artist Georges Claude, who invented the neon tube in 1910.
Some of the most famous neon sculptures were created by American artist Bruce Nauman. His works often incorporated words or phrases, which were illuminated in bright colours. One of his most famous works is “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths”, which consists of the words “true artist” illuminated in green neon.
Other notable artists who have used neon in their work include Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima, American artist Tracey Emin, and British artist Damien Hirst.
In the 1970s, the use of neon lights began to decline in the US. The invention of the light-emitting diode (LED) in the 1960s, which was much more energy-efficient, contributed to the demise of the neon sign industry in the US. By the early 21st century, LED lights were used almost exclusively in signs and lighting.
The first advantage of neon LED lights is that they are significantly more energy-efficient than traditional neon lights. In fact, neon LED lights use about 80% less energy than traditional neon lights. This is due to the fact that traditional neon lights require a high voltage in order to operate, whereas neon LED lights only require a fraction of the voltage. This makes neon LED lights much more cost-effective to operate since the overall energy costs are significantly lower.

The second advantage of neon LED lights is that they are much more durable than traditional neon lights. Traditional neon lights are made of glass tubes that are filled with gas, making them susceptible to breakage. Neon LED lights, on the other hand, are made of solid-state semiconductors that are not susceptible to breakage. This makes them much more durable and long-lasting, which is why they are becoming increasingly popular in both commercial and residential applications.


Although the glow was caused by tube vibrations because of static electricity, they did not understand this phenomenon in history. The neon signs come from the work of glassmaker Heinrich Geissler and physicist Julius Plücker. The work of these two men produced glowing glass tubes in Germany in the 1850s. Miners used Geissler tubes in laboratories in France.

While Geissler tubes contained air and other types of gases, including carbon dioxide and mercury vapour. The first neon lights used glass tubes similar to earlier versions made in Germany and used the work of chemists Morris Travers and Sir William Ramsey to use neon. Travers and Ramsey discovered that microscopic amounts of neon gas occur naturally in our atmosphere. This may come as a surprise to many, but neon is actually the fifth most common element in the universe, after hydrogen, helium, oxygen, and carbon.

Neon lighting rules the world

Neon lighting was already a rapidly growing technology that was later used everywhere, from the Moulin Rouge in Paris to the Las Vegas Strip and New York Times Square. A few years later, at the 1938 World’s Fair in New York, General Motors erected a giant neon sign, “Futurama,” to illuminate the road to the World of Tomorrow’s automaker show. The mass introduction of neon signs was an attempt to get communist citizens to see their surroundings after dark as in other major cities in the west. Around this time in the 1960s, movies with neon lights were popular, but neon lights themselves were phased out and replaced by other cheaper and less demanding products.

The story of the neon lighting and signage industry is one of creativity, flexibility and transformation.

Our enthusiasm for neon can be traced back to 1898 when the neon gas element was first discovered by two English chemists, Sir William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers. Chemists quickly discovered that neon, then stored in fragile glass tubes, emits a striking reddish-orange light when an electric current is passed through the tube.
In the early 1920s, neon lighting tubes were used to create eye-catching signs and displays. As neon signage became increasingly popular, glamorous neon lighting displays moved from downtown car dealerships to neon billboards in Times Square, New York City. In the following years, the explosive international popularity of neon lighting pushed it into homes, shopping malls, restaurants and nightclubs.

Transitions in the Neon Lights Industry

Although remnants of cultural endorsements remain today, the neon lighting industry has emerged from its post-war challenges relatively unscathed and is once again considered a leading player in signage, advertising, and artistic lighting. The latest increase in neon lighting sales is due in part to advances in neon LED technology. Instead of using a chemical element for lighting, neon LED devices use semiconductors and a process known as electroluminescence is used to emit light. The light emitted by the neon LED closely mimics the lighting style produced by traditional neon lighting tubes. Modern neon LED designs also have two major advantages over traditional neon lighting.


Glass Neon Lighting

These neon tubes took on their contemporary form. Claude also solved two technical problems that increased the working life of neon. Which fueled the growth of the neon lighting industry. Claude used argon and mercury gases to create different colours beyond those produced by neon. For example, blue is formed when metallic mercury is mixed with neon gas.
White and gold can also be created by adding argon and helium. By the 1930s, there were enough colours of neon tube lights for interior lighting applications. These colours had some success in Europe, but not in the US. Since the 1950s phosphors for colour televisions have created about 100 brand-new colours for neon tube lighting. Around 1917, Daniel McFarlan Moore, then working for the General Electric Company, developed the miniature neon lamp.
These small, low-power devices use a physical principle called ‘coronal discharge’. Moore placed two electrodes close together in a light bulb and added neon or argon gas. Although some neon lamps are themselves now antiques and their use in electronics has declined. Technology has continued to advance in artistic and entertainment contexts. Neon lights were reshaped from long tubes to thin flat panels for plasma displays. Plasma televisions.

Neon light technology was used in plasma panel displays


The small size of a neon lamp’s negative radiation zone and the flexible electronic properties used in electronic circuits. Led to the earliest adopters of this technology for plasma panel displays. “These properties include alternating continuous voltage, a dielectric layer, wall charge, and a neon-based gas mixture.” Like neon lamps, plasma displays use a gas mixture that emits ultraviolet light.

The neon sign is an evolution of the earlier Geissler tube, which is a sealed glass tube containing a rarefied gas. Geissler tubes were popular in the late 19th century, and the different colours they emitted were characteristics of the gases within. The discovery of neon in 1898 by British scientists William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers included the observation of a brilliant red glow in Geissler tubes. Travers wrote, «the blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story and was a sight to dwell upon and never forget.» Following neon’s discovery, neon tubes were used as scientific instruments and decorative items.

From December 3–18, 1910, Claude showed two 12-metre long bright red neon tubes at the Paris Motor Show. By 1913, a large sign for the vermouth Cinzano illuminated the night sky in Paris. By 1919, neon tube lighting adorned the entrance to the Paris Opera. What may be the oldest surviving neon sign in the United States, still in use for its original purpose, is the sign «Theatre» at the Lake Worth Playhouse in Lake Worth Beach, Florida.

The next major technological innovation in neon lighting and signs was the development of fluorescent tube coatings. Neon signs that use an argon/mercury gas mixture emit a lot of ultraviolet light. When this light is absorbed by a fluorescent coating, preferably inside the tube, the coating glows with its own colour. While only a few colours were initially available to sign designers, after the Second World War, phosphor materials were developed for colour televisions.

About two dozen colours were available to neon sign designers by the 1960s, and today there are nearly 100 available colours.

The Rare Gases of the Atmosphere

Neon is a dull, invisible gas until we trapped it in a tube and zapped it with electricity. Literally out of nowhere, neon has become the bright light of the modern world, a symbol of progress and an essential component of the electronic age. Neon sign at Bar La Floridita, Havana, Cuba. There should be a monument to the man who invented neon lights.
Philip Marlowe, the badass hero of Raymond Chandler’s mystery novels, was right about neon. In the 20th century, neon-powered lights and their noble gas companions were icons of commerce and entertainment, illuminating the modern age. Some early computers and calculators even used small neon tubes for circuits and displays. Today, many of the large, elaborate neon signs have been spat out and replaced by newer or cheaper technology, but those gas-filled tubes still glow on a smaller scale, valuable for their unique light.
Best known as the co-discoverer of four of the noble gases, Ramsay also isolated and characterized helium and radon, the other two noble gases, winning the Nobel Prize for his efforts. Together, these six gases form a family of elements that are distinguished by their refusal to bond with other atoms. This distant “nobility” gave the noble gases their name. After further steps removed the remaining nitrogen and oxygen, they named the residual gas argon.
Although argon makes up less than 1% of the atmosphere, Ramsay suspected there were even rarer gases lurking in the air. This is how they discovered neon, krypton and xenon. Although these noble gases are invisible to the naked eye, each glows a distinctive brilliant colour when sealed in a glass tube and energized at high voltage. These discharge tubes, named after the electrical discharge that caused them to light up, would become the basis of neon lamps.
Ramsay found the neon light striking. In his 1904 Nobel Prize lecture, he described the spectrum of neon as “a brilliant, flame-coloured light, composed of many red, orange, and yellow lines. The blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story, and it was a sight to linger on and never forget.

Tubes Gas Discharge Tubes show the colours produced by different noble gases.

The first practical methods for liquefying air on a large scale emerged as Ramsay worked to isolate his gases, and he thanked William Hampson, the man responsible, during his Nobel Prize lecture. At first, he had hoped to discover additional noble gases by analyzing large volumes of liquefied air but was forced to admit that “after Ramsay, there was nothing more to be done. His next project combined the neon remnants of his air liquefaction with his aversion to the overwhelming brightness of electric lighting.
Claude is not the first to turn to gas tubes for lighting. Spurred on by the commercial success of Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulbs, inventors attempted to turn gas discharge tubes into practical lighting systems. In the late 1890s, Daniel McFarlan Moore, a former Edison employee, filled 10-foot glass tubes with nitrogen or carbon dioxide under low pressure, adding electrodes to both ends. These “Moore lamps”, which glowed bright white when electrified, were more efficient than the carbon filament incandescent bulbs in use.
Although the lamps were used as general lighting in some shops and workplaces, they were expensive to install, required high voltage electricity, and leaked. After 1910, when incandescent lamps improved with tungsten filaments replaced Moore’s tubes, his company went bankrupt. Claude quickly discovered that adapting Moore’s concept to neon involved more than just switching gas. Its tubes gave off a gorgeous glow, but the impurities released from the hot electrodes quickly dimmed the brightness.
A carbon filter solved this problem, but not the problem of metal buildup around the electrodes, causing the tubes to flash too soon. Finally successful, Claude filed his first patent for neon lighting in 1910. Outside, two 40-foot neon tubes glowed bright orange-red against the building’s colonnade. Taking advantage of his invention, Claude forms another company, Claude Neon, to sell neon sign franchises.
Neon was on its way to becoming a household name. Claude’s signalling monopoly lasted until the 1920s, finally collapsing when his patents expired and former employees leaked his trade secrets.


A new sign language

The first illuminated signs in the United States did not appear in New York or Las Vegas, but in the booming City of Los Angeles. Anthony was a pioneer in several modern businesses, including radio, automobiles, and gas stations. The first illuminated signs in the United States did not appear in New York or Las Vegas, but in the booming City of Los Angeles. From then on, the neon was unstoppable.
It was truly “the new”, a symbol of modern industry, commerce and progress in a world still recovering from the traumas of World War I and the effects of the Great Depression. “In New York and London, in Denver and Shanghai, along the main streets of the world, dusk brings forth a million vivid electric signs that bring the night to life. Written in glass! Proclaimed a 1937 advertisement for Corning Glass Works, which supplied tubes for neon signs. Claude’s use of neon at the Paris Motor Show was perhaps prophetic since neon quickly became an integral part of automotive culture, especially in the United States.
Many people learned how to make neon signs by working with established sign makers, but a few trade schools also taught the painstaking technique. Working from a design drawn on a sheet of asbestos, a sign maker would heat a tube of glass over a burner or in a torch to create bends and curves, frequently blowing through the tube worm to keep it from collapsing. The next steps were to attach electrodes to the tube, evacuate the air inside, and “bombard” the interior with high voltage to clean the glass. The completed tubes were then mounted on a metal support plate, which was often covered with.
Once the electrical equipment was added, the sign was complete. Adjusting the gas mixture and tinting or coating the tubes allowed over 40 different colour combinations. Animated by complex stopwatches that successively turned the tubes on and off, these signs dazzled onlookers with silhouettes of high-speed trains, gigantic dancing showgirls or drinks poured into enormous glasses. The spectaculars were masterpieces of art and technology, requiring hundreds of feet of tubing and miles of electrical wiring.

After the removal of oxygen and nitrogen, fractional distillation separated mostly the argon, and repeated fractionation purified the residue of crude krypton and xenon. It was otherwise with neon. It soon transpired that something had contaminated the neon with helium, and attempts were made to effect a separation before they were crowned with success. With this powerful agent to help us, they affected the separation in less than an hour.

Baly published an account of his determination of the wavelengths of the lines in the spectra of neon, krypton, and xenon, photographed with the help of a concave Rowland’s grating of ten feet radial curvature. The discovery that uranium emits «rays» capable of discharging an electroscope and impressing a photographic plate, made in 1896, was followed by the separation from pitchblende, the chief ore of uranium, of that remarkable element, radium, by Madame Curie, in 1898 It was not till 1900 that Madame Curie threw out the suggestion that the rays, which were stopped by small thicknesses of metal or glass, proceeding from polonium, might be of small particles, projected with great velocity, but which lost their energy in passing through matter. Strutt, in 1901, made the same suggestion for the rays from radium.

Calculations show it to be approximately twice that of a hydrogen atom. After Schmidt and Madame Curie discovered in 1898 that compounds of thorium and its containing minerals had properties similar to those of uranium, Owens found that the discharge power of an electric glass could be changed by blowing a stream of air over the specimen. And in I900, Rutherford showed that this was because thorium developed into a radioactive gas. Rutherford and Soddy studied this gas and performed many experiments to explain its chemical nature.

From these observations, they concluded that the emanation «is an inert gas, analogous to the members of the argon family». It had doubtless been projected with a velocity considerable enough to cause the molecules to imbed themselves in the tube’s glass, from which they were expelled at a red heat.

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