What would the nighttime world be without neon lighting? Boring as heck, that’s what! We all know that neon lights get their name from the electrified neon gas inside them, but how did anyone figure out that that was a thing? Who’s bright idea was the neon light?
Ramsay & Travers: Gas Scientists
Neon was discovered in the Earth’s atmosphere by William “Big Bill” Ramsay and Morris William “Smaller but Still Quite Big Bill” Travers. After the duo had successfully extracted pure neon from the atmosphere, they began exploring its properties using a Geissler tube. (These electrical gas-discharge tubes were similar to those used in modern neon signs.)
Travers wrote of their experiments, “…the blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story, and was a sight to dwell upon and never forget.” Producing colored light (or “spectral lines”) via electrical gas discharge was a well-known practice at the time, but was then only used to identify the gas in question. The intensity of light created by electrified neon was unlike anything ever seen by science to that point.
Ride the Lighting
Almost immediately, illuminated neon tubes were being produced for use both as scientific instruments and as novelties. Pure neon gas was still quite rare, however, and the potential for its use as a light source was not widely researched. Other, similar technologies used nitrogen or carbon dioxide as an illuminating medium, and found moderate success in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
In 1902, a company owned French engineer and inventory Georges “Gorgeous George” Claude began producing purified neon in mass quantities, as the gas was a natural byproduct of their air liquefaction process. Using this gas, Claude built two 39-foot long, bright red neon tubes for display at the Paris Motor Show.
In creating the giant, glowing neon tubes, Claude more or less invented the neon lighting industry. He was granted a US patent for the design of his gas-discharge electrodes, a patent that gave Claude Neon Lights a monopoly on neon lighting in the United States until the 1930s. Claude later pioneered the use of other gases that, mixed with neon, would produce colors that electrified neon alone could not.
Modern neon lights are not much different from Claude’s massive prototypes from over 110 years ago, though today’s neon tubes can be as long as 98 feet. In your face, Georges!