History of Neon Lighting

In order to appreciate neon bar signs more fully, it's helpful to learn about the history of neon lighting. In the mid 1800's engineer and glassblower Heinrich Geissler, inventor of the first glass thermometer, developed the Geissler tube, the forerunner of the flourescent lamp. The Geissler tube was a glass cylinder that contained combinations of air, liquids, minerals, and argon. The electric current runs through the tube through two electrodes, and the glass tube glows.

Neon gas was discovered in England in 1898 by Nobel Prize winning Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay and English chemist and founding director of IISc, Morris Travers. Ramsay and Travers liquified air in the cold and then captured the boiled off air when it warmed again (fractional distillation). The gases given off were xenon, krypton, and neon. Neon is a colorless gas unless electrically charged under precise conditions in the tube, when it gives off a reddish-orange glow. Neon, abundant universally but more rare on earth, is a very light noble gas. While other gases were used in neon sign making, the term neon became universally accepted. At this point in history, lighting with neon was not yet imaginable.

It wasn't until 1910 that French inventor and chemist Georges Claude makes a lamp with neon gas. Claude was fascinated with the process and formed a business, Claude Neon. He brought neon signs to the United States in 1915, the first buyer a Los Angeles car dealer, early signs that neon lighting was more a commercial advertising purchase than a general illumination purchase. In the 1950s neon sign maker Artkraft Strauss dominated the large signmaking market. Artkraft Strauss was originally Strauss signs when Benjamin Strauss merged his engineering firm with Ohio neon sign maker Artkraft co. They became famous for their New York smoking camel sign, the Bond Clothing waterfall display, and their managing the New Year's annual ball lowering. Today Artkraft Strauss still consults and designs beautiful corporate signs, theatre marquees, historic restorations and more.

Ever since the 1970's smaller neon signs became collector and display items in parlors, bedrooms, and basement. The dimmer lighting in pubs and bars are perfect for neon lighting and advertising and neon bar signs are still extremely popular. In the 1990's neon colored glow sticks became the rage. While glow sticks had constructive purposes such as for diving, camping, and emergency situations, people to do this day wear glow sticks on their hands, wrists, necks, and ankles at concerts, fairs, amusement parks, and dances (and no, breaking open a glow stick and pouring it on your skin will not cause cancer). They actually contain no neon however, as they have no electrical charges. Neon lighting began to die out commercially in the 1980's as electronic lighting was considered less obtrusive.


Heidi said...

Route 66 is full of these signs. And did you hear there is a sign or neon sign museum of sorts in Las Vegas? I found out about it on someone's crafting blog who visited there. Amazing! Thanks for visiting my blog and good luck with yours!

Joe said...

Thanks Heidi. Yes, there is a neon museum in Vegas where they have restored many old neon signs, the ones they haven't gotten to restoring are in an outside "boneyard" behind a chain link fence. Their website says tours must be scheduled. This is the only neon sign museum that I know about, but I'm still new at researching this so there may be many others. Thanks for visiting.

Anonymous said...

Love your blog! I'm sure by now you're hip to the Los Angeles Museum of Neon Art. It's one of the first. It opened in the 1980s, but struggled to find a permanent home. Over 80% of the collection is in storage, so I'm not sure what they really have. I'm sure the Las Vegas museum is amazing, with all the signs from the old Strip!

Joe said...

Cool, thanks! No I wasn't aware of it. Just by checking out the site, it looks like a pretty interactive museum. They do relighting projects as well as offer nighttime bus tours and even glass bending classes. Here's the link for anyone interested Museum of Neon Art. Thanks again.