Day 130/365: Open! The Signage Evolution

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May 10, 2011

The History of Neon Signs

No single person is credited as the sole inventor of the neon signs, who came up with a finished product first time. The development that took place in its evolution was gradual. It was in the year 1675 when a French astronomer, Jean Picard observed faint glow inside a mercury barometer tube he was experimenting with. At that time no one was aware of the static electricity that was causing the faint glow in the tube. Electricity was still to be discovered and so the glow was attributed to other reasons. It was in 1855 when a German physicist and glassblower, Heinrich Geissler came up with the Geissler tube. When a glass tube that contained inert gas was kept under low pressure and some electric voltage was applied then the tube started to glow.

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It was a finding that pushed researchers to experiment different methods of applying electric discharge to a gas filled tube. Many inventors started experimenting with different types of tubes, electrical power and many types of gases after this Geissler tube invention. American scientist Nikola Tesla showcased his neon lamp at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago. It was based on the idea of Heinrich Geissler’s electrical tubes. In 1898 M. W. Travers and William Ramsey from London discovered the neon gas. Neon is derived from a Greek word ‘neos’ and means a new gas. It is a very rare gaseous element present in the earth’s atmosphere.

But it was in 1902 that the French engineer and chemist Georges Claude came up with the first neon signs. He passed the electrical current to a closed glass tube of neon gas to make a lamp. On December 11, 1910 in Paris Expo he presented to the general public the first neon signs. It was two 38-foot long tubes. He passed some electric current to an inert gas inside a glass tube to produce the glowing light. By mixing many gases with neon Claude produced different colors in the tube.

Generally it is the Penning Mixture that is used in neon signs. It is a mix of neon gas and argon. A drop of mercury may also be added. The gaseous mix allows starting and sustaining the neon signs operation by lowering the required striking voltage. He also discovered that the glass tube holding this gaseous mix and glowing on the electrical discharge could be twisted and bent under controlled heating and air pressure to form the shape of letters and pictures.

It was a Paris barber shop owner who first received the commercial neon signs in 1912. This neon signs lighting was patented by Claude on January 19, 1915. It was in 1923 that he and his company Claude Neon first presented the neon signs in the USA. The first neon signs were sold to the Packard Motor Car Company dealer in Los Angeles. The dealer paid $2,500 for two of the neon signs. From there it took off as a eye-catching outdoor advertisement and was all over. Now at some places the use of neon signs has been regulated. And to date, Neon signs is mostly being replaced by the LED Lights! The Light Innovation and Technology has begun to save on electricity.


Day 130/365: Open! The Signage Evolution!

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