The Definitive History of Neon Signs

The Definitive History of Neon Signs

Neon signs have been an integral part of our urban landscape, illuminating the night with their bright, vibrant colors. From advertising to art, these glowing symbols have marked significant milestones in our visual culture. However, the evolution of neon lights, from their discovery to the rise of LED neon signs, presents a fascinating tale of technological progress and innovation.

Part 1: Neon – The Element of Light

Before we delve into the history of neon lights, it's essential to understand the element that makes them possible: Neon.

The Discovery of Neon

Neon, a colorless and odorless noble gas, was first discovered in 1898 by British chemists Sir William Ramsay and Morris Travers. They made this discovery while conducting experiments on liquefying air, separating it from other gases through fractional distillation. This process ultimately led to the isolation of three new gases: Neon, Krypton, and Xenon. The name 'Neon' is derived from the Greek word 'neos', which means new gas.

Part 2: The Emergence of Neon Lights

The concept of using gas to create light had been explored before neon's discovery, but the scarcity of neon gas and the lack of technology to harness it impeded its commercial use.

The First Neon Lights: Geissler and Moore Tubes

The early 19th-century saw the invention of Geissler tubes by German physicist Heinrich Geissler. These tubes, filled with different gases like nitrogen and mercury vapor, emitted a glow when subjected to an electric discharge. These tubes were primarily used in scientific experiments and as novelty items.

The Advent of Neon Signs: Georges Claude's Invention

The commercial application of neon gas as a source of light can be attributed to a French engineer, Georges Claude. He found that when an electric current was passed through neon gas enclosed in a sealed glass tube, it emitted a bright red light. Claude presented his neon lamps at the Paris Motor Show in 1910, wowing the audience and paving the way for neon signs' commercial use.

Part 3: The Rise of Neon Signs

With Claude's invention, the era of neon signage began. This marked a revolution in the advertising industry, with neon signs becoming a popular choice for businesses around the globe.

The Spread of Neon Signs

The first neon sign in the United States was introduced by a car dealership in Los Angeles in 1923, marking the beginning of the neon sign revolution in America. The popularity of neon signs skyrocketed in the 1930s, with cities like New York, Las Vegas, and Chicago becoming famous for their bright neon lights.

Neon Signs: Challenges and Advancements

Despite their popularity, early neon signs faced several challenges, including the difficulty of containing neon gas and the manual production of glass tubes. However, advancements in glassblowing techniques in the 1920s improved the production of glass tubes, leading to more complex and diverse neon signs.

Part 4: The Evolution of Neon Signs

Over the years, neon signs have evolved, with technological advancements playing a significant role in their transformation.

The Color Spectrum of Neon Signs

Early neon signs primarily emitted a bright red light. However, French engineer Jacques Risler expanded the color spectrum by adding different gases to the neon tubes. For instance, the addition of argon gave a green color, while a combination of argon and helium produced a golden fluorescence. This discovery led to a broader range of colors for neon signs.

The Advent of Plastic Tubes

The invention of plastic tubes revolutionized the production of neon signs. These tubes were more durable and easier to transport than glass tubes, allowing for more complex and creative designs in neon lights.

Part 5: LED Neon Lights – A New Era

While neon lights have a long and storied history, the rise of LED (Light Emitting Diodes) neon lights marks a new era in this field.

The Emergence of LED Neon Lights

LED lights, which have been around almost as long as neon lights, began to be used as a replacement for neon in the late 1960s. Initially, LEDs were expensive and only available in red. However, the mass production of LED lights by companies like Hewlett-Packard and Monsanto in 1968 made them more accessible and affordable.

The Advantages of LED Neon Lights

LED neon lights offer several advantages over traditional neon lights. They are quieter, cheaper, and easier to maintain. Moreover, they come in a wider range of colors and can be programmed to flash different colors, making them more attractive than traditional neon lights.

Part 6: The Contemporary Uses of Neon Lights

In the modern world, neon lights continue to be a popular choice for various applications, from interior décor and signage to art and creative expressions.

Interior Décor

Neon lights have become a crucial feature of modern interior design. Their vibrant glow adds an aesthetic appeal to homes and offices, creating a warm and welcoming ambiance.


LED neon lights are still widely used for signage. From logos of companies and open-closed signs for shops to messages for individual businesses, neon signs continue to be an effective means of communication.

Art and Creative Expressions

Artists increasingly use neon lights to enhance their artworks. The bright, colorful lights add an emotional element to sculptures, drawings, and paintings. Furthermore, neon lights can be used to craft words and letterings, allowing for creative expressions.

Conclusion: The Future of Neon Signs

The history of neon signs is a testament to human ingenuity and technological progress. From their humble beginnings to the rise of LED neon lights, these luminous symbols have significantly shaped our visual culture. As technology continues to advance, it will be exciting to see how neon signs evolve, continuing to illuminate our lives with their vibrant glow.

At Voodoo Neon, we are passionate about creating tailor-made neon signs that enhance your brand identity and captivate your audience. Whether you're looking for ready-made neon lights or wish to customize your own, our catalogue boasts some of the most attractive and durable products on the market. Visit our website to explore our offerings and light up your world with our vibrant neon signs.

"Neon signs are the luminous symbols of our visual culture, illuminating our lives with their vibrant glow." -  Chris Diprose, Voodoo Neon

Brighten up your world with Voodoo Neon!

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Chris Diprose - Author, Interior Designer and Neon Sign Consultant

Chris is our subject matter expert whose vast experience in helping business owners and individuals with a neon sign designed specifically for them.

With over 20 years experience in online he has worked with many businesses.

Founder of Voodoo Neon, Chris is our resident expert.

He also helped setup Neon By Design.

Author Bio