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The History of Neon Lights
Image credit: Julia Bujalski

The 1920s through the 1960s are considered the Golden Age of Neon in America. During this time, businesses across the country lit up their storefront windows with the glow of brightly colored neon signs. A new technology at the time, neon lights were considered magical and mesmerizing. So, where did these glowing signs come from and how did they get so popular?

Initial Creation

Neon lights were created by a French engineer named Georges Claude. He demonstrated his invention for the first time at the Paris Motor Show in 1910. Claude had previously created a method for liquifying air in 1902, and neon was a byproduct of the air liquifaction process he had developed. With the large quantities of neon gas he was producing at his air liquefaction business, he was able to create his neon lights.

Claude’s design was based on the Geissler tube, an electrified glass tube that contained a rarefied gas and was invented in 1855 by Heinrich Geissler, a German glassblower and physicist. To make his famous neon lights, Claude filled a glass tube with his newly created rarefied neon gas. Then he passed an electrical current through the rarefied neon gas, which caused it to glow and emit a dark orange light.

Introduction of Different Colors

Because neon gas was the first type of gas that Claude used in his lights, the term “neon lights” was established. However, not all neon signs use neon gas. In fact, as his lights gained popularity, Claude began using different rarified gasses and fluorescent coatings with his tubes in order to create different colors. Some of the gasses he used included:

  • Hydrogen to produce red light
  • Helium to produce yellow lights
  • Carbon dioxide to produce white lights
  • Mercury to produce blue lights

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Glass Bending

But how did these straight glass tubes of gas become the twisty, glowing signs we are all so familiar with? Once the tubes were filled with the appropriate gas or gases, the ends had to be sealed off with metal electrodes. Then the glass would be heated just enough to make it flexible. Handheld tools were then used to carefully bend the tubes into the desired shape. Usually, neon signs would spell out business names or basic logos. Many of them also proclaimed generic messages like, “Open!” or “Vacancy!”

Popularity in Paris and America

The first product to advertise using a neon sign was Cizano in Paris in 1913. Then in 1919, the Paris Opera acquired their own neon sign. From there, the neon trend took off and Paris was aglow with neon lights. In 1923, neon lights were introduced to the United States. Claude’s company, Claude Neon, sold the first two neon signs in America to a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles. Soon after, neon signs exploded in popularity. Americans embraced neon lights in a way that no other country did. New York City’s Times Square was especially well known for using the new technology. Although neon lights were expensive, businesses considered them a novelty that caught consumer’s attention and helped them stay competitive. People would stop and stare at the glowing light, which was often referred to as “liquid fire.”

A Lingering Fascination

While neon lights eventually gave way to more efficient LED lighting, they still carry with them a certain fascination. Today, only about 18% of signs are neon lights, while 40% now use LEDs. However, neon lights are still visible in some storefronts and remain especially popular among businesses wishing to evoke nostalgia for the 1940s and 1950s in America.

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