The Flickering Art of Neon Signs

History of the Neon Sign
The first neon sign was an evolution of the Geissler tube, which was used before neon. The Geissler tube consisted of an electrified glass tube that held a "rarefied" gas, meaning that the gas pressure inside the tube must be much below atmospheric pressure. When an electrical current with specific voltage is applied to the electrodes introduced through the glass at distant points of the glass tube, the gas emits an electrical glow. Geissler tubes gained popularity and maintained their appreciation until the end of the 19th century. Geissler tubes came in different colors depending on the kind of gases they contained. The Geissler tube was not very bright and was not considered to be appropriate for general lighting. Generally, the pressure of the gas inside a Geissler tube became lower with usage time. The link between the Geissler tube and neon signs was the Moore tube. The Moore tube made nitrogen or carbon dioxide that would glow when electrified with a patented mechanism designed to maintain the correct pressure. Moore tubes were used for popular commercial lighting at the very beginning of the 20th century.

The First Neon Glow
Two British scientists named Morris W. Travers and William Ramsay discovered neon in 1898 when the observed a bright red glow in Geissler tubes. Neon tubes quickly became novelties and gained public admiration. There are accounts of a sign designed by Perley G. Nutting that displayed the word "neon" and is said to have been displayed at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904.

Large amounts of neon started to be produced in 1902 in France by Air Liquide, which belonged to Georges Claude. The neon gas Air Liquide produced was actually a byproduct of its air liquefaction process for its main product.

Neon Makes it into Signs
Georges Claude displayed two large bright neon tubes measuring 12 meters each at the at the Paris Motor Show in December of 1910. With the red lighting a Grand Palais peristyle, one of Claude’s associates, Jacques Fonsèque, identified the business potential for using neon in signs and advertising.

In 1913, the night sky of Paris featured red glow with a vermouth Cinzano sign. Six years later, in 1919, the Paris Opera was decorated with neon tube lighting. Claude was granted patents for the innovation of the impurity removal by uses of bombardment of sealed signs and also for the internal electrodes design for signs that prevent its degradation caused by sputtering.

By 1923, Claude sold his first signs to be used in the USA to an American car dealership named Packard, in Los Angeles, California. Almost overnight, neon lighting became a part of outdoor advertising. Neon could be seen at night and even during the day, which caught the public’s admiration, who nicknamed it "liquid fire" in the 1920s.

More Neon Colors
Fluorescent tube coatings characterized the next step in neon lighting, which Jacques Risler had the French patent for in 1926. When the right mixture of argon and mercury are used in a sign, it emits a considerable quantity of ultraviolet light, which when absorbed by the phosphorescent coating inside the tube, glows a specific color depending on the composition. The color palate for signs was limited at first but reached around 25 colors by 1960 and almost 100 colors have been developed until the present.

The Neon Sign Becomes Rare
Ever since the 1920s, neon lights lit many cities throughout the world in the 20th century, but in moving into the 21st century, with many other lighting options, neon has become all the rarer. Neon signs and nostalgic beer signs seem to give way to the ever more popular LED lighting options.

Neon Signs are a dying craft due to factors such as fragility and time required to produce them. These special signs are unique and never exactly alike no matter the skill level of the people involved in making them. Hong Kong still retains a number of neon sign designers that preserve the subtle ingenuity that it takes to produce these beautifully unique and glowing signs.

Asian sign designers usually start by choosing a calligraphy style from a number of local designers, each with a distinct style. Different styles are used for different purposes but they range from simplistic scripts to broken bones that usually portray a clearly visceral style.

In making the tubes for a sign, the minimal size limit will depend on the designer’s ability to bend glass and not burning his hands. When a sign craftsman builds the sign, the tubes are heated to above 1,472 degrees Fahrenheit by flame and are bent with the hands and no protective gloves are ever used. After the bending of the glass tubes with heat, the tubes are colorized. A neon sign either uses neon for red light or argon for blue light. The powder that is used inside the tubes will be used to produce the color and hue that is desired. The final step is to close the ends of the tubes with electrodes once filled with gas and connected it to electrical transformers for the right voltage.

The Uncertain Future of Neon
These signs such as beer signs and other traditional and even creative shapes can still be admired in bars and other nostalgic places, represent a fascinating but dying craft due to their dwindling popularity. Since each sign has its own artistic and individual design, they become quite expensive to make and power. These signs have been known to cause fires, but at least they were part of the progress of night advertising. With a limited number of designers and neon sign makers, they are even hard to fix and replace. At present, we can only guess when the last neon beer sign will go out for the last time before the LED light signs totally take over, but until then let’s enjoy their beautifully nostalgic liquid fiery glow.