The History of Neon Signs

Neon is one of the elements that sits along the far right side of the periodic table of elements with the noble gases, making it one of the most common elements found in the universe. With two-thirds the density of regular air, neon is considered to be pretty rare here on Earth, and even so, two scientists in the late 1800s managed to capture it through a meticulous process. From there, with the use of tubes, neon signs as we know them today were born.

Neon Bar Mask Sign
Neon Bar Mask Sign

The attempt to isolate the elusive gas was done over the course of two months, when the two scientists liquefied the air and then captured the gases that came off of it when it was boiled. This gas was put into a tube and they added an electric charge to it. By doing this, the tube glowed with a bright reddish orange color when subjected to those charges. The two scientists were awed by what they saw and soon began developing tubes that would allow them to continue to capture the gas and electrify it to produce the glow again and again.

In 1907, these tube lights began being mass produced by a French businessman and were first shown at the 1910 Paris Motor Show. An opportunity was seen to develop a signage business out of these neon lights, and in 1912, the sizes of the tubes were reduced in order to allow them to turn the tubes into letters and words. The first neon sign in North America was displayed in 1923 in Los Angeles, and one of those signs is still there, never having been removed.

Neon Bar Sign - Historic Route 66
Neon Bar Sign – Historic Route 66

Business boomed from there, and then came a need for a more diversified neon light in order to add competition on the market. Since technically, neon will only produce that reddish orange color, different gases had to be used, most notably the gas argon that produces a pretty lavender color. When these different gases are used with fluorescent coatings, the changes in color are possible. The development of this process took place in 1920, prompting the boom of different colors of neon lights.

From there, people began experimenting, using different colors of neon lights and even incorporating mechanical parts like large coffee cups that let off steam or an ad for laundry detergent that released actual bubbles. Neon signs of all kinds began being use for large and small businesses alike, making them a standard in places like restaurants, barber shops, retail stores and bars.

Neon Open Sign - Open Deco Green & Red - Art Deco Style
Neon Open Sign – Open Deco Green & Red – Art Deco Style

Remarkably, over the decade since neon signs were created, the method of creating them really hasn’t changed. The desire to use neon lights has scarcely changed either, as even those who opt to change out their old neon signs for LEDs typically come back to neon in the end. Neon signs not only decorate businesses, but nowadays they can also be found in homes, making them a true treasure when it comes to decorating.

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