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The element neon was discovered in 1898 by Sir William Ramsay and Morris M. Travers. Little did they know how much it would change the way we view light…
Neon lights are commonplace these days, but did you know they’ve been around for 100 years? That’s an entire century of neon lighting.
Let’s take a look at the evolution of the neon light over the last century.
Ramsay and Travers were on a roll in 1898. Just before discovering the gas element of neon, they also produced a formula to create krypton. Their studies of liquified air changed the way lights were made.
French engineer Georges Claude had a habit as a bit of a tinkerer and loved to invent new stuff. In 1902, he applied an electrical current a tube of neon gas that was sealed, just to see what would happen. Sealed lamps like this had been in use to investigate the properties of gasses since the Geissler tube was invented in 1855. Heinrich Geissler was a physicist with a penchant for glass blowing, and thus the Geissler tube was born.
Scientists soon realised that gasses could be sealed into this tube, put under low pressure and heated, to make the gas glow. Georges Claude took this idea and created the original neon lamp, based on adaptations to a Geissler tube. While it was first displayed in Paris in 1910, Claude didn’t patent the design until January 1915.
After displaying his invention in 1910, a Parisian barber placed the first order for a neon advertising sign with Claude.
In 1919, the Paris Opera House had red and blue neon signs outside, and the idea was starting to catch on.
Neon is a clear gas that turns red when electricity is applied. Claude found that his neon signs could have different colours if other elements were included in the mix with argon. Blue, for example, came from the addition of mercury. Other elements include CO2 (white), and helium (gold). More colours are then produced by the addition of different phosphor coatings inside the bulb.
Claude created the first neon tube sign in the USA for a company run by Earle C. Anthony: a Packard car dealership. People loved the new neon signs as they could even be seen in daylight, and thus began the boom of neon light advertising.
The rise of the computer age meant a new use for neon light. Electrons will only flow through a glass tube if it’s lit, and it takes more energy to light a neon tube than to keep it on constantly.
Scientists found that keeping the balance between “on” and “almost on” created a perfect binary switch to control digital circuits.
We have neon in our bars, clubs, and in parking lots. Now it’s a fashion statement, too – you can even have neon signs in your home!
Who knows what the future holds for neon?