History of Neon

The word “neon” is derived from the Greek “neos” which means “the new gas”.

Neon is a rare atmospheric gas – the ratio being one part neon in 65,000 parts of air. Neon gas was discovered in London in 1898.

It is extracted by liquefying the air and is then separated from the other gases by a process known as fractional distillation.  The first observance of glowing light dates much further back, however. In 1675, the French astronomer Jean Picard noticed a faint glow after shaking a mercury barometer tube. It was not understood at the time, but we now know that the glow was caused by static electricity.
After the discovery of electricity, scientists began investigating other forms of lighting.

With the invention of the electric generator, much experimentation began taking place with the application of electricity to tubes of gas. In the United States and Europe, several types of these lamps were invented and were called electrical discharge lamps or vapor lamps. In the early 1900’s, a French inventor, chemist, and engineer George Claude used neon as the gas in the tube.

In the 1850’s a German glassblower, Heinrich Geissler, developed the Geissler tube. Gas was placed in a tube under low pressure and was charged with electricity, which made the gas glow.

With the invention of the electric generator, much experimentation began taking place with the application of electricity to tubes of gas. In the United States and Europe, several types of these lamps were invented and were called electrical discharge lamps or vapor lamps. In the early 1900’s, a French inventor, chemist, and engineer George Claude used neon as the gas in the tube.

This new neon lamp was unveiled to the public in Paris in 1910. Claude’s company, Claude Neon, later introduced neon signs to the United States. Two neon signs were sold to a car dealership in Los Angeles. The neon signs read “Packard”, and sold for $24,000! From that time on, neon lights were in demand as a form of outdoor advertising. People often referred to these new neon signs as “liquid fire.”

Within 10 years, neon lights were widely used across the U.S. for advertising. By the 1950’s, large elaborate neon signs of many colors could be found in most towns. Even animated neon signs were possible – a woman diving into a pool, etc. Las Vegas was known around the world for its use of these kinds of neon signs. One of the most famous of these neon signs was a huge neon flamingo with fluttering neon light feathers. This animation was achieved by using multiple layers of neon light tubes, which were each powered in a timed sequence.

Use of neon signs and neon lights began to decline in the 1960’s due to rising production costs, poor craftsmanship, and the rising popularity of fluorescent lighting. Neon lights and neon signs were also expensive to repair and were wrongly thought to be costly to use. By this time, neon signs were mostly associated with cheap motels, strip clubs, and bars.

The future did not look good for neon light. At one time, there were thousands of neon sign companies which employed many more thousands of neon light tube benders. Those numbers dwindled significantly before a renewed interest in neon signs during the 1970’s. Neon lights were wildly popular in discos.

Neon lights are now more popular than ever with many new forms and uses. Automobile license plates can be accented with neon, and neon lights can even be attached underneath your car! Because neon lights can be powered with battery-operated transformers, they can be used in parades and even on costumes for stage productions.