The History of Neon Lights

The theory behind neon sign technology dates back to 1675 before the age of electricity, when the French astronomer Jean Picard observed a faint glow in a mercury barometer tube. When the tube was shaken a glow called barometric light occurred, but the cause of the light (static electricity) was not understood at that time. Even though the cause of barometric light was not yet understood, it was investigated. Later, when the principles of electricity were discovered, scientists were able to move forward towards the invention of many forms of lighting.


Electric Discharge Lamps

By 1900, after years of experiments, several different types of electric discharge lamps or vapour lamps were invented in Europe and the United States. Simply defined the electric discharge lamp is a 'lighting device consisting of a transparent container within which a gas is energized by an applied voltage, and thereby made to glow'.


Georges Claude - Inventor of the First Neon Lamp

The word neon comes from the Greek "neos," meaning "the new gas." Neon gas was discovered by William Ramsey and M. W. Travers in 1898 in London. Neon is a rare gaseous element present (a noble gas) in the atmosphere to the extent of 1 part in 65,000 of air.

The French engineer, chemist, and inventor Georges Claude, was the first person to apply an electrical discharge to a sealed tube of neon gas (circa 1902) to create a lamp. Georges Claude displayed the first neon lamp to the public on December 11, 1910, in Paris. He patented the neon lighting tube on January 19, 1915. In 1923, Georges Claude and his French company Claude Neon, introduced neon gas signs to the United States, by selling two to a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles.


Visible even in daylight, people would stop and stare at the first neon signs dubbed 'liquid fire.'


Making a Neon Sign

Hollow glass tubes used to make neon lamps. To shape the tubes, the glass is heated by lit gas and forced air. Several compositions of glass are used depending on the country and supplier. What is called 'Soft' glass has compositions including lead glass, soda-lime glass, and barium glass. "Hard" glass in the borosilicate family is also used. Depending on the glass composition, the working range of glass is from 1600' F to over 2200'F.

The tubes are partial cut while cold and then snapped apart. Then the artisan creates the angle and curve combinations. When the tubing is finished, the tube is partial evacuated of air. Next, it is short circuited with high voltage current until the tube reaches a high temperature. Argon or neon is filled to a specific pressure depending on the diameter of the tube and sealed off. In the case of an argon-filled tube, additional steps are taken for the injection of mercury. Red is the colour neon gas produces, neon gas glows with its characteristic red light even at atmospheric pressure. There are now more than 150 colours possible; almost every colour other than red is produced using argon, mercury and phosphor. Neon tubes actually refer to all positive-column discharge lamps, regardless of the gas filling. 


I am available for talks and workshops about Neon art as well as commissions.

alchemy21July