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History of Neon Lights

Mostly everyone has seen neon signs from time to time. They appear across a wide range of businesses from diners to car washes. They also advertise movies and storefronts. Some places, like Times Square and Las Vegas, are famous for the enormous amount of neon signs displayed in close quarters. Neon signs come in an array of bright and vibrant colors. Small signs are sometimes available for sale as novelty items that can be used to decorate a child’s room or given as presents. Artist Dan Flavin (1933-1996) made a career by crafting abstract artwork using neon lighting. Although neon signs are ingrained into culture and are sometimes seen every single day, few people know about the history of neon lighting and how they came to become so iconic of consumerism and entertainment culture.

Neon light tubes can be shaped in any way needed.
Neon light tubes can be shaped in any way needed.
Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Neon lighting is a direct result of the evolution of the Geissler tube, an electrified glass tube that contained “rarified” gas (gas below atmospheric pressure). When voltage was applied to electrodes inserted through the glass it produced a glowing discharge. Geissler tubes were very popular in the late 1800s due to the selection of colors they could produce. In 1900, the “Moore tube” was invented. It worked much like the Geissler tube but the gases inside could last much longer. The 1898 discovery of the chemical element “neon” enabled the Moore tubes to use the chemical in their lighting tubes. By 1910, bright and bold neon signs (usually in the color red) were being displayed at large-scale events like the Paris Motor Show.

In 1926, neon lighting’s technology was improved by way of fluorescent tube coating. During the 1920s, neon lights were filled with an argon/mercury gas mixture which produced ultraviolet light. When the fluorescent coating absorbed this ultraviolet light it glowed its own color. Thus fluorescent coatings broadened the overall scope of color capabilities. After the Second World War extensive research was conducted focusing on phosphor materials (useful in neon lights). By the 1960s, approximately two dozen colors were available by way of neon lighting—a fact that the public regarded as breathtaking.

Today over 100 colors are available in neon lighting so two dozen colors hardly seems very impressive at all. However, lights that offered a range of more than 20 colors was absolutely astounding to most Americans living in the 1960s. Neon signs became iconic Americana and, even today, many storefronts still use neon signs to attract attention. However, advances in technology have slowed the use of neon signs in the past decade. Therefore, many people who own vintage neon signs are now making sure that they are kept in top shape since some can be worth a great deal of money.

Neon lights are interesting to study for proposes of history, science, consumerism and marketing. Although they are not quite as widely used today as they once were, they are still fascinating contributions to history and remain undeniably beautiful ways to illuminate locations.