A friend of mine who works in the outdoor sign business told me recently that neon signs are about to be extinct; the large sign companies are giving up on the technology because they can’t find enough skilled craftsmen. Glowing neon signs were such a prevalent part of our urban landscape it’s impossible to imagine mid-century culture without them.
You might think they stopped making neon signs years ago because most outdoor signs are backlit with fluorescent tubes. However the shaped ones, the kind with the cut out letters, are still lit with neon or other gas tubes.
Neon lights have two big advantages over fluorescent; they last much longer and they can be shaped individually for custom sign-making. The flexibility doesn’t come easy though.
The tubes are manufactured as straight, hollow rods. Bending them is a highly skilled craft that no machine can replicate; it’s all done by hand before the gas is put in the tube. The glass bender can only make one bend at a time and must constantly supply just enough air pressure in the tube to keep it from crimping. Heat must be applied very precisely to the area being bent and nowhere else. There’s no going back; make one mistake and the whole thing goes in the garbage. It takes years to learn and people who have mastered the technique consider themselves to be artisans. There are still a lot of them around but most would rather make art than work in a sign factory.
Neon art is very big these days but this is not a case of art taking over what industry has abandoned. Art was there first; the advertising onslaught came much later.
It all started in 1852 with German physicist Heinrich Geissler, a very skilled glass blower and laboratory instrument maker at the University of Bonn. He was working on ways of using electricity to create a vacuum in a sealed tube when he discovered gas inside such a tube would glow when an electric current passed through it. He perfected the gas light design but apparently didn’t think of patenting it; just put it out there as a novelty and a teaching tool.
The device was useful in teaching students how electricity behaved but it proved even better at helping scientists learn more about electricity. Later versions of his tube aided in the discovery of x-rays and the electron. Scientists working with the tube also discovered that a small amount of current could control the larger flow, squeezing it like a valve, meaning the tube could be used to amplify small fluctuations in current. That lead to what the British call valves and we call tubes in radios, sound recording and playback equipment, TVs and early computers. Even when solid-state transistors took over, the picture tube remained in use for TVs and computers until very recently. What’s more, the modern plasma flat screen, which was invented in 1964, is based on the same principle Geissler discovered. Each pixel is a tiny pocket of gas that gives off light when a current is applied.
In 1890 several companies started to mass produce what were called Geissler tubes; novelty pieces in complex and ornate shapes that glowed in many colours produced by a combination of different gasses and different kinds of glass. They required a very high voltage transformer called a Ruhmkorff coil that could be dangerous so they were not found in every household, but they were very popular with what we would now call science geeks. Still being made today, they are fascinating collectables in their own right. Vintage ones that still work commonly fetch $100 - $200 on-line.
It wasn’t until 1898 that neon gas was discovered as a very tiny part of our natural atmosphere. It was soon found to glow red in a Geissler tube. However neon was scarce and impractical for lighting. In 1910 French businessman Georges Claude began producing large amounts of neon synthetically; he demonstrated a 12 metre long glowing neon tube at the Paris Motor Show that year. He also patented a method of manufacturing tubes that would last for decades.
By 1913 the first neon sign, for Cinzano, was erected in Paris. Soon afterward the Paris Opera put neon around their entrance and the course was set for neon’s use in advertising and theatre marquees.
Claude’s company, Claude Neon Lighting Inc., introduced neon signs to North America in 1923; the Packard Car Company had the first. Dubbed “liquid fire” they were an instant hit. Over the next few years techniques were developed for making hundreds of colours using combinations of different gasses, coloured glass and fluorescent coatings. So-called neon signs popped up everywhere and Claude Neon Lighting Inc. received a license fee for every single one of them. Their patent expired in 1931, which reduced the cost and opened the way for more companies to start producing signs. Neon took over New York City’s Times Square; the skyline of Las Vegas was made up entirely of spectacular neon signs.
They’ve almost disappeared over the last 30 or 40 years, LEDs are taking over, but now many are being restored and treasured as commercial art. The fabulous sign on the old Geneva Theatre here in Orillia is a perfect example. Three museums in the United States are dedicated solely to neon lighting, both vintage signs and modern artistic work.
As much as we now admire these amazing signs, it’s just about impossible to collect the big ones, we settle for pictures of them. We can, however, collect the smaller signs that hung in windows. Neon beer signs were so prevalent that the word neon is synonymous with a bar, at least in country music. It’s a bit of a myth because even though lit beer signs were in every bar in the 1940s to 1960s, very few were neon; they only started to appear in mass quantities in the 1980s. The early ones usually need some restoration (the power transformers dry out) but the later ones should have a lot of life left in them and they add a nice touch to the home bar or man-cave. They can be easily found for under $300.
Besides, you can explain it’s not just a beer sign; it’s homage to a venerable craft and part of a chain of scientific discoveries that had a profound effect on just about everything in our modern world.