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Neon Lighting: How it Changed the Signage Landscape

Neon Lighting: How it Changed the Signage Landscape

. 4 min read

If there was one thing that really changed how signage and advertising were used together, it was neon lighting. They provided a really bold and eye-catching statement, and the range of colours meant that they could be used for all types of brands in almost all situations.

Even as technology has advanced immensely over the past 20 to 30 years, nothing has been able to replace the sheer brilliance of real neon lighting. Even in this world of LED technology, there hasn’t been that eureka moment where LED lighting can be finally seen as the real neon replacement.

Where it all started

It was back in 1898 that neon gas was originally discovered by two chemists - William Ramsey from Scotland and Morris Travers from England.  In addition to neon, they also discovered xenon and krypton from a sample of argon. Using a process involving liquid air, the argon was frozen and then evaporated, with the resulting gases being collected. This gas sample was then subjected to a high voltage, which resulted in the test tube emitting a bright crimson colour.

The gas was named “neos”, which is Greek word for “new” – used in this instance to signify a “new gas”. The gas itself was both odourless and colourless, as well as being extremely rare.

It is part of the family of “noble gases”, whose main characteristic is that they are described as unwilling gases, due to the fact that the outer shell of their electrons that orbit the nucleus are full, and therefore, the gases have no incentive to trade electrons with some of the other elements.

The first neon signs

It wasn’t until several years later that the gas was first used in signs. They were developed in 1902 by a French engineer (as well as a chemist and inventor) by the name of Georges Claude, who applied electricity to the neon that was held inside a sealed tube made of glass.

Over the years he refined the process and the first neon light was put on display in the city of Paris on 11th December 1910. The original colour of the none light was orange-red, so work started on working on ways to create a variety of other colours that could be used. The blue colour was created with argon, while other colours were soon created using argon and a variety of other gases including xenon, helium, krypton and mercury.

Two years later in 1912, Claude set about marketing his neon lights, and in the same year he developed a sign for a Parisian barbershop which was the first ever piece of neon advertising that was sold. After filing for a patent for neon lights in the United States and starting his own company which was named Claude Neon Lights Inc, he continued producing orders, including one for the Paris Opera House.

Today there are companies all around the world dealing with neon lights such as Neon Mama, which has a great choice available.

The first orders in the USA

In Los Angeles in 1923 an auto dealer placed an order for two neon signs with the word Packard for his dealership, as these were the luxury cards that he sold, which were built in Detroit by the Packard Motor Car Company. The two signs cost a total of $24,000 and lead to the big breakthrough for Claude and his neon lights.

Afterwards, the neon light business exploded across the states, and George Claude became a very famous man. His neon lights could be found all around the country by the mid 1900s, and Las Vegas, one of the places that are instantly synonymous with neon lighting, was already beginning to see its skyline lit up by these colourful and brilliant creations.

Neon lights became part of the fabric of cinematic culture around the world, and Douglas Leigh, who was a lighting designer and advertising executive, was one of the pioneers of neon lighting. It wasn’t just the USA where neon was hugely influential. Paris, where they were first developed, adopted the lighting for nightclubs as well as cinemas, and their influence even reached as far as China and the Soviet Union.

The past 30 years

Over the years, with the constant development of technology, as well as LED lighting, the demand for neon lights obviously began to decrease. Though LED could not provide the brightness, colours and overall charm of neon lighting, the fact that it was able to be produced at a much cheaper cost than neon meant that the demand for it grew.

The late 1990s say new laws and code were brought into effect which effectively meant that all businesses would have to comply. Additional standards for sign components also hit neon light vendors hard, and a lot of businesses couldn’t survive.

Today’s market

Though some companies were able to survive the dramatic end of the 1990s, the market had moved greatly towards LED products. A number of neon lighting companies changed their directions and started focusing on elements such as neon bordering or skeletal structures, and moved away from the traditional market of neon lettering.

Other neon companies moved into the restoration market, and offered to fix and restore old neon signs that may have iconic value to a specific location or business.

There are still a number of companies that offer a full range of neon light products and services. In addition to providing neon lights for signs and advertising purposes, they can also make wonderful and very unique gifts.

Some companies will let you create your own custom designed neon light, similar to the online companies that let you create your own T-shirts. You can also find a range of different style neon lights that make excellent centre pieces for your office or shop. These can feature text or imagery and include designs featuring animals, sci-fi and superheroes, or anything else you can imagine.

Some final thoughts

Though the main market of neon lights has certainly decreased over the past 30 years, it is something that holds a great deal of nostalgia for many people, and if anyone is looking to recreate retro look from the 1980s, then neon lights are the only thing that can really bring that era back to life.



Cooper Klein

Cooper Klein is a cool dad and an interior designer.. He’s currently working from home as a blogger for several online magazines.