Neon – the word alone evokes all sorts of feelings. Comfort coming from a long hard day at work; escape from a troubled night at home; unease on a lonely walk on the wrong side of the tracks; nostalgia on a stroll through memory lane; wonder upon entering a city that beckons with its lights.
No matter the setting, neon signs have a way of touching the human heart with their warm glow. But with all the sentimentality attached to these beacons of night, there’s a science to their bright hazy magic.
In Light of Contradictions
Neon is an inert gas that when placed inside a glass tube will drift without forming stable molecules. Basic chemistry would tell you that it wouldn’t automatically make sense for them to glow, but there is a limit to their “inertness” when enough energy is applied. With a high enough voltage, the atoms in neon molecules are stimulated to the point where electrons are released and spread throughout the tube along with ions to light up the entire space.
And Then There Was Light
The invention of the Geissler tube in 1855 (named after German physicist Heinrich Giessler) laid the foundation for the invention of neon lights. One experiment with the Geissler tube had scientists placing it in low pressure then applying electric voltages on it, making the gas inside the tube glow.
The rare gaseous element neon that produces the light in a neon sign was first discovered in 1898 by the Scottish chemist William Ramsay alongside Morris W. Travers in London. The name “neon” was derived from the Greek word “neos” which means “the new gas”. The Earth’s atmosphere contains very small traces of neon, requiring air liquefaction to produce it and fractional distillation to separate it from other gases.
George Claude can be credited for making the first neon gas lamp while also figuring out how to mold the glass tubes into different shapes. After designing the neon lamp, he showed it to the masses on December 11, 1910 in Paris, France. He patented the idea on January 19, 1915, and went on to sell neon gas signs to the US with the help of a Packard car dealership.
Neon signs enjoyed immense popularity in the US, lighting up all sorts of establishments in towns and cities across the country from the 20’s all the way to the 60’s. Although their use has faded since then, they still manage to serve their purpose of attracting customers with their dazzling designs.
They’ve also become quite the cultural art form, with many creative minds exploring the neon signs’ aesthetic opportunities. Check out the amazing typography designs below, and take in their promises of simple comforts, remember the good old days, and marvel at their brilliance.