A Blaze of Crimson Light: The Story of Neon

Neon sign at La Floridita Bar, Havana, Cuba. (Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Neon sign at La Floridita Bar, Havana, Cuba. (Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

A New Sign Language

The first neon signs in the United States did not appear in New York or Las Vegas (which had a population of just a few thousand people in the early 1920s) but in the boomtown of Los Angeles. Entrepreneur Earle C. Anthony was a pioneer in several modern businesses, notably radio, automobiles, and gas stations. In 1915 he founded the first California dealership for the Packard Motor Car Company, a luxury brand, and remained the sole Packard distributor in the state through the 1950s. Anthony saw Claude’s neon signs on a visit to Paris and in 1923 commissioned a stylish promotion for his downtown showroom: two signs, each with “Packard” in elegant script, traced in orange neon tubing with a clear blue border (most likely produced by adding mercury to the neon). The signs cost $1,250—about half the price of a 1923 five-passenger Packard Single-Six Touring car—but Anthony’s investment paid off. The signs were a sensation, reportedly causing traffic jams as people stopped to marvel at their intense glow.

From that point on neon was unstoppable. It truly was “the new one,” a symbol of modern industry, commerce, and progress in a world still recovering from the traumas of World War I and the effects of the Great Depression.

“In New York and London, in Denver and Shanghai, along the Main Streets of the world, dusk brings forth a million vivid electric signs that make the night alive. There is a new sign language . . . written in glass!” proclaimed a 1937 advertisement for Corning Glass Works, which supplied tubes for neon signs. Claude’s use of neon at the Paris Motor Show was perhaps prophetic since neon soon became an integral part of automobile culture, particularly in the United States. As the American interstate highway system developed, neon signs across the country promoted businesses that catered to motorists: gas stations, diners, motels, and roadside attractions. And New York, Los Angeles, and especially Las Vegas became famous for the countless neon signs that enticed people with visions of nighttime pleasures, both accepted and forbidden: going to the movies or the theater, dining in restaurants, dancing, drinking, gambling, and sex.

Many people learned how to make neon signs by working with established sign makers, but a few trade schools (notably the Egani Neon Glassblowing School in New York City) also taught the painstaking technique. Working from a design traced on an asbestos sheet, a sign maker heated a glass tube over a burner or in a torch to create bends and curves, blowing frequently through the hot tube to keep it from collapsing. Further steps included attaching electrodes to the tube, evacuating the air inside, and “bombarding” the interior with high voltage to clean the glass. After small amounts of gases were pumped in—usually a neon-argon mixture, sometimes with a little mercury—and the tube was sealed, it was “aged” with electrical current to remove impurities from the gas and ensure a steady luminosity. The completed tubes were then mounted on a metal supporting plate, which was often coated in enamel for durability and to enhance the light from the tubes. Once the electrical apparatus was added, the sign was complete.

Adjusting the gas mixture and tinting or coating the tubes allowed for more than 40 different color combinations. Even with the limitations imposed by this fragile and difficult medium, many forms and shapes were possible: block letters, flowing cursive script, combinations of lines and geometric designs, and pictures of all sorts, from the humble shoe or fish in a shop window to the elaborate, large-scale moving signs aptly called “spectaculars.” Animated by complex timing devices that turned tubes on and off in succession, these signs dazzled onlookers with outlines of speeding trains, gigantic dancing showgirls, or drinks poured into immense glasses. Spectaculars were masterpieces of art and technology, requiring hundreds of feet of tubing and miles of electrical wiring.

Counting on Neon

Neon didn’t just glow in signs. At the dawn of the computer age in the 1950s and 1960s neon tubes were key components of some digital circuits. This unusual application was possible because of the way electricity functions in neon tubes. Electrons flow through a tube only when it is lit. The voltage needed to light a neon tube is higher than that needed to keep it on. By maintaining a tube at a voltage somewhere between on and off, small increases or decreases in voltage could be used to control the current (seen as light). Precise regulation of flow of current allowed the tube to be used as a binary switch to control digital circuits.