15 Things You Didn't Know About Neon Signs

If it's not orange or red, it's not actually neon.

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September 09, 2020

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Stephanie Diani

From the Stars

Neon. It’s one of the most abundant elements in the universe and can be found in the Earth’s crust and in the atmosphere, according to the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. But the coolest fact about neon might just be that it’s produced by stars. During the alpha process in large stars, oxygen and helium are fused together to create the noble gas. Thankfully for Vegas, it can be produced commercially by a process called fractional distillation, aka liquifying air.

All the Pretty Colors Aren't Neon

The secret’s out. If your favorite neon sign has blue, green, white, purple or yellow colors then it’s not neon at all. When electrified, neon only produces a reddish-orange color. That’s right — neon can only be red or orange. It’s argon, another noble gas, that’s most often electrified to create all the other pretty colors used in 'neon' signage.

Mercury Blues

So how are other colors made? In the 1920s, phosphor-coated glass tubes were developed and used with electrified gases to produce new colors. Most commonly, today’s vibrant ''neon'' signs are made by adding argon gas to a color-coated glass tube and mixed with a tiny bead of mercury to produce an ultraviolet color. Different colors of phosphor-coated tubes also create different shades of white.

High Voltage Handmade Art

Almost all neon signs are handmade. That’s because the glass tubes used to make neon signs need to be heated and bent using ribbon burners, hand torches and glass blowing techniques to create intricate designs. Simply put, glass tubes are heated and shaped, sealed with electrodes, cleaned, filled with a noble gas and then electrified using high voltage — and all done by hand.

Paint It Black

Almost every dive bar has a few branded neon signs hanging in the window. Look closely and you’ll notice the back of the sign is often painted black. That’s because electrified glass tubes filled with neon or argon are super bright and can be seen from all sides. To ensure the space keeps a moody, dark atmosphere, neon sign makers paint one side of the sign black. And, as most neon signs are made using long, bent pieces of glass tubing, black paint is often used to create visual spaces between letters and words.

Patching up an Old Favorite

If you’ve ever seen a neon sign with a section that’s stopped glowing, that’s likely due to physical damage of the tube or because the transformer lighting up the tube has lost its charge. While most neon signs can last a decade or longer, antique neon signs and local favorites can be repaired easily because glass tube colors have generally stayed the same since the '30s. Phosphor-coated neon tube colors can be matched to almost any color palette.

Neon Sign Language

By the end of the '50s, commercial interest in neon signs began to flicker and dim due to production costs and cheaper sign alternatives. But a new spark began to ignite in the 1960s art community. Previously only used for advertising, several artists pioneered a path for neon as a medium — from the abstract works of Dan Flavin and Joseph Kosuth’s use of neon words to Chryssa Vardea-Mavromichali's light sculptures merged from advertising and abstract symbols.

What Lasers and TVs Have in Common

Aside from brightly lit signs, neon is used in plasma TV displays, surgical helium-neon lasers and even scuba diving equipment. According to the American Institute of Physics, neon is also commonly used in cryogenics. When liquified, it freezes quickly and acts as an ultra effective coolant.

4.2 Miles of Light

National Geographic says the brightest city seen from space at night is none other than Las Vegas. From lavish casinos and celebrity restaurants to high-flying Cirque du Soleil venues, the neon-soaked Las Vegas Strip has been saturated with bright neon signs since the 1930s. The city even has a 2.35-acre Neon Museum dedicated to the history of neon with more than 250 signs on display.

A Noble Aspiration

In the 1890s, Sir William Ramsay, a Scottish chemist, along with Lord Rayleigh, a British chemist, discovered argon by isolating it from liquified air. Shortly after, the chemists used a similar process to discover helium. Later, the discovery of neon, xenon and krypton gases gave way to the expansion of the Period Table of Elements and new classification. According to Science History Institute, Ramsay earned a 1904 Nobel prize in chemistry for his work establishing the noble gases.

Sign of the Times

Simultaneously, French engineer and inventor Georges Claude was working to mix his knowledge of science, chemistry and physics together to pioneer a safe way to store, transport and use inert gases. Encyclopedia Britannica states that in the late 1890s, Claude developed fluorescent-coated glass lamps to trap neon gas — and also discovered it would produce light when electrified. A few decades later, Claude’s very first, bent-glass tubing neon display would be used for the 1910 Paris Motor Show.

Neon Hairdo

Cultural historians claim the first commercial neon sign was developed by Claude Neon, formed by inventor Georges Claude, and sold to a Parisian barber in 1912. The sign reportedly lit up Boulevard Montmartre with "Palais Coiffeur" in bright red, starting a new trend in electric storefront displays.

Electric Avenue

Roughly a decade later, neon made its way to the States, continuing its artistic, inventive tie-in with the automotive industry — and not in Las Vegas. In 1923, a pair of neon signs for Packard Motor Car Company in Los Angeles literally stopped traffic. According to the Science History Institute, businessman Earle C. Anthony purchased and placed two large-scale, glowing red "Packard" signs at the top of a downtown LA hotel after a trip to Paris to admire Georges Claude’s work. Some passersby thought the building was on fire and called for help.

Interstate Love Song

Earning the moniker "liquid fire," neon signs quickly became the new wave of roadside advertising in America. In the '30s and '40s, outdoor attractions, gas stations, diners and motels relied on these bright beacons to generate customer attention in the dawn of the new highway system. Neon signs made nighttime the right time for customers looking for entertainment after dark.

Nostalgia Is a Vibe

Today, retro-inspired neon signs are making a vibrant comeback. Like vintage vinyl and wide-leg jumpsuits, neon signs are a classic, cultural staple that’s regaining popularity with local businesses, big fashion retail and even brightening up living room walls.

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