100 Years of Neon Signs

Or is 160 years more correct?

I’m writing these lines on the neon sign‘s 100th birthday. I’m standing on historical soil, wherethe father of the first luminous sign was born. No, I‘m not sitting under the Eiffel Tower in Paris, as most readers would expect, but on the heights of the Rennsteig, a former medieval trade road that’s now a hiking trail in the Thuringian Forest in Germany. But let‘s go back a few hundred years further and start from the beginning.

Glassmaking was perfected in Roman times. In fact, the ancient products and techniques couldn’t be replicated until the late 20th Century. Slightly later, alchemists appreciated glass because it withstood not only the aggressive action of acids, heat and other experimental conditions, but, also, its transparency permitted the experimenter to view what was going on inside.

Glassmaking consumed more wood than even Roman shipyards. After the decline of the Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, glassmaking businesses would repeatedly deplete surrounding forests, then move to the next wooded area.

In 1597, when the Thuringian Forest was untouched and impassable, Johann Casimir, the Duke of Saxony-Meiningen, wanted to convert forest into agricultural areas to feed his starving populace. So, he invited glassmakers to settle at the Lauscha Creek, and he bestowed honors for each acre of forest that was logged and converted.

Lauscha’s glass industry prospered, and the region’s population exploded (winter is bitterly cold there). Thus, the next generations were forced to spread out and establish more glass factories nearby.

Rapid population growth also mercury vapor “lamp.” Later, scientists such as Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley and Humphrey Davy investigated “the passage of electrical fluid through different kinds of air” using glass vessels and electrostatic machinery.

But, their experiments were rarely repeatable due to unavailability of proper vacuum pumps, pressure gauges or gas analytics. They couldn’t contain the gas inside the glass vessel for long – the electrical wires that fed the current in and out couldn’t be passed through the glass wall tightly. To further seal the tubes, they applied beeswax and rosin, which added gaseous components, and, in the process, air leaked in.

Back in Germany, we leap to 1814. In Neuhaus am Rennsteig (the meant more sons shared ownership of a family’s glass business, which meant the business couldn’t provide a decent living for everyone. This spawned a cottage industry of workers who “worked at the oil lamp” to manufacture tiny glass beads and toys.

Besides this, the lampworkers and glassmakers in the Thuringian Forest perfected the technique of manufacturing delicate apparati for scientists. Most glassworkers in the renowned universities came from the Thuringian Forest.

Elsewhere, at the time, the Italian scientist Evangelista Torricelli observed, when a 4-ft.-long glass tube was closed at one end, filled with mercury, stood upright (closed end up!) and shaken slightly, a faint light appeared – the first electric mercury vapor “lamp.” Later, scientists such as Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley and Humphrey Davy investigated “the passage of electrical fluid through different kinds of air” using glass vessels and electrostatic machinery.

But, their experiments were rarely repeatable due to unavailability of proper vacuum pumps, pressure gauges or gas analytics. They couldn’t contain the gas inside the glass vessel for long – the electrical wires that fed the current in and out couldn’t be passed through the glass wall tightly. To further seal the tubes, they applied beeswax and rosin, which added gaseous components, and, in the process, air leaked in.

Back in Germany, we leap to 1814. In Neuhaus am Rennsteig (the town next to Lauscha), a boy named Heinrich Geissler was born and then raised as a glassblower. He found that the common Thuringian glass could be sealed, vacuum tight, with platinum wire to trap the gas inside the electrical egg indefinitely. He also found that reducing the cross-section between electrical connections intensified the light effect. Hence, he made the first discharge tubes, with a capillary part between rather wide electrode vessels.
In 1851, Geissler bent such capillary tubes into letters and spelled a word in glass. When he placed this tube in his shop window in Bonn, Germany, he created a stir, even though the tube lasted only a few hours.

Later, while working as a scientific glassblower at the University of Bonn, circa 1875, he perfected Toepler’s mercury vacuum pump, using mercury to displace air, and created pressures of roughly 1 micron, or enough to sufficiently clean the spectral tubes and obtain repeatable results.

But Geissler (he had since become famous, and his tubes were already named “Geissler tubes,” as they are today) could use only gases that were known at that time, such as nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and hydrogen. All these gases undergo chemical reactions with the electrode metal, which consumes the gas, thus limiting the lifetime of the Geissler tubes to a few hours of operation.

In 1893, John McFarlan Moore used large Geissler tubes for lighting. They were still filled with common gases and had a short lifetime, but their warm, pink-yellowish, soft-white light, their continuous line of light (no “spots” like incandescents) and their ability to match the architectural shape made them commercially successful.

To extend their lifetime, an automatic refill mechanism was invented. It replenished the amount of gas used up by the chemical reactions. Due to their large diameters (2.5 to 3 in.) and lengths (up to 60 ft.), these tubes were difficult to bend into shape, but Moore tubes have reportedly been used in signs.
At the turn of the 20th Century, Parisian Georges Claude developed a process for producing liquefied air in quantity, using the Callaitet principle of one-step liquification without a prior heat exchange (contrary to the Linde-process) to fill the growing demand of oxygen for medical and gas-welding purposes.

During the liquification of air, Claude always found a bit of “permanent gas” withstood liquification. In 1898, British scientist Sir William Ramsay had discovered/separated a new gas in these remnants and named it “neon” (Greek for “new”). Ramsay identified it by a bright red glow when it was energized with electricity.

Claude, who was a businessman rather than an inventor, wanted to monetize this “waste” product. Having known neon’s inert properties (that it won’t undergo any chemical reaction), he tried to fill a Moore light tube with this gas to extend the lifetime without using a refill valve. He also knew neon, when ionized by high-voltage electricity, lights up bright red, which isn’t desirable for general lighting purposes, but does penetrate foggy skies better than other colors. Because of its visibility over long distances, Claude thought it would create attention – after all, color for a shop sign wasn’t so important.

At that point, Geissler’s shaped advertising tubes had been forgotten, and luminous signs exclusively employed incandescents. Systematic experiments by Claude’s staff led to the primary claim of his patent application – that the electrode size per given electrical current “must exceed a size of 1.5 square decimeters [approximately 23 sq. in.] per Ampere,” or, otherwise, the electrode will be depleted rather shortly.

The use of neon and the electrode size permitted Claude’s tubes to last for 80,000 to 100,000 operating hours.

Claude filed his French patent application on March 7, 1910, and his U.S. application on November 9, 1910. The U.S. Patent Office examined it for (only!) four years before granting the patent.

Interestingly, the patent is countersigned as witnessed by Dean Mason, the founder of the British neon company Masonlite, which was in business until 2005.

Next, Claude focused on commercially exploiting his invention. His company began to publish periodicals, the “Claude Neon News.” Claude’s business grew.

Because neon signs were difficult to transport (all roads weren’t paved), Claude set up new branches as franchisees. To become a neon-sign fabricator, you not only had to buy the equipment from the Claude company, but pay $100,000 royalties to know “the secrets.” You were also obliged to buy all materials from the Claude monopoly.

On the other hand, Claude’s big company was financially strong enough to enforce the patent up to the maximum, legal extent against infringements, and so they did.

In 1923, the first neon sign was shipped to the U.S. and installed at a Packard dealership on Hope St. in Los Angeles. The sign was still operative in 1974, after more than 50 years of use! Sadly, not a single piece of the original was preserved, but a replica owned by the City of Los Angeles art collection is periodically displayed in the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles. The neon sign’s impact caused traffic to stop because everybody wanted to see the “new light.”

Claude Neon’s strict enforcement policy caused bootlegging attempts. The electrode-size claim was the most difficult to circumvent. In the late 1920’s, the Cortese brothers, Italian immigrants, and scientific glassblower Ben Kresge remembered that, in 1908, the German physicist Wehnelt had found that cold-cathode X-ray tubes can be loaded to much higher currents when the negative electrode is coated with earth-alkali oxides (he used calcium oxide that contained a bit of barium). By coating neon electrodes with these oxides, the current load per surface could be extended far beyond the level claimed by Claude without creating electrode decomposition. So, the Cortese/Kresge electrode legally circumvented Claude’s monopoly, opening doors to neon’s widespread use.

In Miller/Fink’s famous book, Neon Signs, published in 1934, he wrote (page 49), “The patented electrode now fully available,” which referred to the fall of Claude’s monopoly.
The Cortese family still is in the neon business as EGL, while Kresge’s National Vacuum Laboratories closed with the master’s death in 1999.

Interestingly, many neon companies that began as Claude franchise subsidiaries are still in business (some still use Claude’s name), and the parent Claude business still oper ates under the name Sofelem France in Paris.

During the late 1930s, neon-tube colors multiplied with the development of fluorescent materials for TV screens – uncoated tubes were previously used. Some of today’s common colors, such as standard sign green and sign blue (as well as orange as green pumped red and hot pink [aka blue pumped red]) date back to these times and are produced with the same chemicals.

The “American Streamline” design boosted the use of neon as an inte¬gral part of modern architecture, and, thus, neon became an irrevocable part of the “American way of life” (from American Streamline, by Philip DiLemme, published by Van Nostrand-Reinhold).

As Rudi Stern said in his foreword to American Streamline:
“Since these designs were still being used in the 1950s, they have become part of our nostalgia in the ’80s. The dubious glories of the 1950s include neon echoes from the 1930s, the true heyday of the medium.”

In the late 1950s, plastic materials were promoted in the sign business as ideal, modern and easy to use. In the late ’60s, plastics proliferated with the introduction of acrylic-face channel letters and fluorescent lamps in box signs. During this time, most neon tubes were hidden behind plastic. Signs looked more and more uniform, and individualism was ruled out by “standards.” This was neon’s Depression period.

Rudi Stern was a major voice in re-establishing the beauty of well-designed, open and glass-only neon signage. He founded the Let There Be Neon gallery in NYC in the mid-1970s – and it’s still operating. (See ST, November 2006, page 120, for an update on the gallery, and October 2006, page 176, for Stern’s influence on neon’s renaissance.)

Since the 1960s, neon has been recognized as a fine-art medium. Pop Art transformed neon from an advertising form into fine art, and it’s maintained a separate, well-accepted role in the artistic world.

With development of the color TV in the late ’60s, and the improvements in fluorescent lamps, many new fluorescent materials were developed. One prominent color is “coral rose,” europium-doped yttrium vanadate, a material devel¬oped by the RCA labs in Princeton, NJ (now it’s the Sarnoff Institute) in the early 1960s as the red component for color-TV screens.

With these new materials, neon suppliers massively enlarged the available color palette to roughly 50 colors in the 1970s. But the general ’70s trend in “modern graphics” towards large, uniformly colored surfaces (a posterized style) didn’t favor the linear look of a neon tube.

In a parallel development, “new” materials such as plastics were vacuum molded into three-dimensional signs. The first types of vinyl (hand-cut, because computers or plotters weren’t available to signshops) were considered “modern advertising.” The proliferation of the fluorescent-lamp, backlit, plastic box sign forced many small neon shops out of business, not only in the U.S. but in Europe.

Dusty Sprengnagel, in his book Neon World, commented about Vienna: “As in many other cities, neon almost vanished in the 1970s, due to the predominance of illuminated Plexiglas fronts.”

The demise of the neon industry, and the reduced demand that resulted, led to the ceaesure/discontinuation in production of materials, foremost colored-glass tubing, like the famous “ruby red” manufactured by Corning glass. Also, many smaller electrode manufacturers stopped production.
Germany’s largest glass manufacturer, Schott, stopped making colored-glass tubing (still hand-drawn at that time) in 1989, while Venetian glassmakers started producing machine-made, colored-glass tubing for neon circa 1987. This source now supplies more than 80% of the world market in colored-glass tubing for different neon suppliers.

In the late ’80s and ’90s, neon experienced a revival, along with the “American way of life” being trendy in most parts of the world. Again, due to the development of new “rare-earth” fluorescent materials in the lighting industry, even more colors became available for the sign business. Currently, the neon customer can choose from more than 100 colors.

At the same time, the use of colored-glass tubing (from the Venetian source) became so popular that its production at turn of the millennium, just for red glass, was more than 240 tons per year.

Even with neon’s ubiquitous use and recognition, its widespread request and market, in combination with increasing globalization, led to a cut-throat price war between sign companies. Neon was not only outsourced to local, wholesale, glass shops, but imported worldwide. When national retail chains started to sell “Open” signs for less than $99.99, many neon shops were facing economic crisis. Beer signs were mostly imported.
In the first years of the new millennium, LEDs were marketed in the sign industry as neon replacements. Today, LEDs, as semiconductors, aren’t well suited to most outdoor applications in the sign business, except in some small niches.

At first, some large, national retail chains converted their outdoor signage to LED lighting, but several reverted to neon after a few years due to the high failure rate of poor-quality LED products and/or poor installation practices.
The beauty of a well-designed, handmade neon sign is still unsurpassed and will ever be. There is no replacement, and there won’t be.

After more than 160 years, the glow of energized gas in (transparent) glass tubing -- and after 100 years in the form of Claude’s neon signs -- has established it as an important part in our way of civilized life. Neon signs, with their economy and beauty, are living history.

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