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The History and Timeline of Neon Signage Use

If we are going to create a Neon Signage timeline, we might as well do it right and start at the beginning – Neon.

Neon Creation: (5 billion years ago)

During cosmic nucleogenesis of the elements, large amounts of neon are built up from the fusion process in stars. Although neon is a very common element in the universe and in our solar system, it is very rare on Earth. The neon present on Earth today was created in the core of the Sun 5 billion years ago before it exploded and created the planets.

What is Neon?

Neon is a rare gaseous element present in the atmosphere to the extent of 1 part in 65,000 of air, or about 18.2 parts per million by volume.

It is obtained by liquefaction of air and separated from the other gases by fractional distillation, and is one of three residual rare inert elements (along with krypton and xenon) remaining in dry air after nitrogen, oxygen, argon and carbon dioxide are removed.

Neon was immediately recognized as a new element from its bright red emission spectrum. Neon gives a distinct reddish-orange glow when electrified at low pressure. It is considerably more expensive than helium, since air is its only source.

Air is the name given to the atmosphere used in breathing and photosynthesis. Dry air contains roughly (by volume) 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.039% carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases.

Composition of dry atmosphere, by volume[2]

ppmv: parts per million by volume (note: volume fraction is equal to mole fraction for ideal gas only, see volume (thermodynamics))
Gas Volume
Nitrogen (N2) 780,840 ppmv (78.084%)
Oxygen (O2) 209,460 ppmv (20.946%)
Argon (Ar) 9,340 ppmv (0.9340%)
Carbon dioxide (CO2) 394.45 ppmv (0.039445%)
Neon (Ne) 18.18 ppmv (0.001818%)
Helium (He) 5.24 ppmv (0.000524%)
Methane (CH4) 1.79 ppmv (0.000179%)
Krypton (Kr) 1.14 ppmv (0.000114%)
Hydrogen (H2) 0.55 ppmv (0.000055%)
Nitrous oxide (N2O) 0.325 ppmv (0.0000325%)
Carbon monoxide (CO) 0.1 ppmv (0.00001%)
Xenon (Xe) 0.09 ppmv (9×10−6%) (0.000009%)
Ozone (O3) 0.0 to 0.07 ppmv (0 to 7×10−6%)
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) 0.02 ppmv (2×10−6%) (0.000002%)
Iodine (I2) 0.01 ppmv (1×10−6%) (0.000001%)
Ammonia (NH3) trace


Neon Milestones

* 7th Century B.C.E.
Neon’s name is derived from the Greek word “neos” which means “new one” or “the new gas.”

* 1675
In 1675, a French astronomer named Jean Picard, who is best known for accurately measuring the circumference of the Earth, observed a faint glow in a barometer tube containing mercury. Though it was not understood at the time, the glow was caused by static electricity.
* 1855
Heinrich Geissler, a German glassblower and physicist, invents the Geissler tube, which becomes a precursor for the development of neon lighting. Geissler tubes contain a “rarefied” gas and are electrified. The electric current causes the gas inside the gas to glow. The color emitted by a Geissler tube let you know which gases were contained in the glass tube. Once electric generators were invented, many people began experimenting with the glowing tubes.

* 1898
Neon gas was discovered by William Ramsey and M.W. Travers in 1898 in the city of London. Though it was expensive to do so at the time, Ramsay and Travers had succeeded in obtaining some pure neon from the atmosphere. They then explored its properties using an “electrical gas-discharge” tube quite similar to the tubes used today on neon signage. Travers later wrote, “the blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story and was a sight to dwell upon and never forget.”

* 1902
The French engineer, chemist, and inventor Georges Claude was the first person to apply an electrical discharge to a sealed tube of neon gas (circa 1902) to create a lamp.

* 1904
A sign created by Perley G. Nutting and displaying the word “NEON” may have been shown at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904.

* 1907
In 1907, Georges Claude invented an economical way of liquefying air and separating out the various gases, and then designed a new electrode that gave superior performance in his tubes. He then began selling tubes for lighting.

* 1910
Georges Claude displayed the first neon lamp to the public on December 11, 1910, in Paris.

* 1915
Georges Claude patents the neon lighting tube on Jan. 19th, 1915 – U.S. Patent 1,125,476.

* 1923
Georges Claude, who was sometimes referred to as “the Edison of France,” and his French company Claude Neon, introduced neon signage to the U.S. when in 1923 he sold two neon signs that read “Packard” to the Packard car dealership in Los Angeles, California. The two signs were purchased by Earle C. Anthony for an amazing $24,000 (in 1923 money.)
The new technology was exceedingly popular for signage and displays in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. Neon lighting quickly became a popular fixture in outdoor advertising. Visible even in the  daylight, people would stop and stare at the first neon signs dubbed “liquid fire.”

* 1940
Neon lighting continued to increase as a cultural phenomenon in the United States, and by 1940 most downtown cities were ablaze with neon signage and the bright neon lights of Times Square in NYC was known around the world.  There were over 2000 shops across the country making these extravagant neon signs.

* 1945
By the time WWII came to a close in 1945, the popularity of, and the intricacy and scale of neon signs had declined in the U.S. significantly.  Other nations, such as Japan and Iran, continued to develop neon signs with enthusiasm. Today we are seeing a resurgence of neon lighting use in a variety of disciplines, from art to architecture.  We’ve always known them as our “OPEN” signs and neon bar signs, though.

Neon Sign Industry Today

The neon sign industry declined in past decades, but now cities have become concerned with restoring and preserving the antique neon signs in their area, as they are a part of history.

Neon signs are now making a big comeback while historic signage is preserved.  Neon lighting is becoming more common among everyone from artists to architects, has refrigerant applications, and even exists in plasma display panels and televisions in a modified modern form.  It is also used in Helium-Neon lasers.

Check out this information visualized in our infographic timeline below. Feel free to share it too. If you would like to place this infographic on your website, just be sure to link back to us.


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