A Blaze of Crimson Light: The Story of Neon

Inside the ANITA Mk VIII electronic calculator. The world’s first electronic desktop calculator used neon display and switching tubes. (Nigel Tout)

Inside the ANITA Mk VIII electronic calculator. The world’s first electronic desktop calculator used neon display and switching tubes. (Nigel Tout, anita-calculators.info)

These neon switches could be linked up to create circuits needed for a range of applications, from the simple arithmetic of accounting to the measurement of events that occur faster than humans can count, such as in radioactive decay. “Glow lamps filled with Airco neon help computers think faster,” a 1961 magazine advertisement explained. “Without the neon glow lamp the dazzling speed, compactness and economy of the electronic computer would not be possible. . . and many of the spectacular advances that are now being made in business and defense technologies would be slowed down considerably.”

Neon tubes had another advantage for computers and technical equipment. Since they ran cooler and more efficiently than incandescent bulbs, they could be used as indicator lights and displays. A common type of neon display was the Nixie tube (short for “Numeric Indicator eXperimental No. 1”), introduced in 1955. This small neon bulb had wires shaped like numerals, letters, or other symbols, one in front of the other, that lit up when the current was turned on.

Neon’s biggest electronic triumph may have been the world’s first electronic desktop calculators, the ANITA Mk VII and Mk VIII, invented by Norbert Kitz of the Bell Punch Company in England. The ANITA machines, whose name was an acronym for A New Inspiration To Arithmetic (or Accounting), had a Nixie tube–like display. An advertisement highlighted this feature: “Answers are recorded in large lit-up figures which defy you to misread them.”

Inside the ANITAs, neon-filled switching tubes drove the calculating logic. Introduced in 1961–62 at a cost of 355 pounds sterling (about $1,000 at the time, or $7,500 today), ANITAs sold at the rate of 10,000 per year to such businesses as banks, accounting firms, and department stores. With a footprint of about 1-by-1.5 feet (31 centimeters by 46 centimeters) and a weight of over 30 pounds (14 kilograms) each, ANITA calculators were large by modern standards. They were, however, quieter and faster than earlier mechanical calculators, and much smaller and cheaper than the huge (and hugely expensive) computers of the day. As a 1965 article explained:

[The tubes] are an accountant’s dream; a typical modern tube has a life expectancy several thousand times better than the conventional thermionic [vacuum] tube, although they employ voltages of the same order. They are much cheaper than either semiconductor devices or vacuum tubes; they do not require costly materials with a high degree of purity in their manufacture, nor do [they] need transformers or cooling systems to operate.

But by the 1970s neon tubes in computers were largely obsolete. Transistors became the preferred electronic switching elements, and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) began to replace Nixie tubes in displays. Neon, however, still glows brightly in do-it-yourself electronics. Today, avid hobbyists seek out vintage Nixie tubes for hand-built clocks and the occasional eye-catching wristwatch—and some have even created retro-style neon circuits.

Neon Old and New

Neon’s supreme reign in signage was also relatively brief. Nighttime blackouts during World War II darkened neon signs around the United States, and many large ones were never relit. Cheaper, low-maintenance signs made possible by new kinds of plastics and fluorescent tubes replaced them. Defunct neon signs, considered eyesores in many municipalities, were scrapped, though dedicated collectors and preservationists fought to preserve and restore these pieces of genuine Americana.

Nowadays, most neon signs are small and simple, such as “Open” signs for stores or beer advertisements for bars. The late 1970s, however, saw the beginnings of a small-scale neon revival that is still ongoing. Attracted by neon’s unique look and retro appeal, sign makers bent tubes for signs in old and new styles, passing on their skills to a new generation; architects used neon to accent buildings inside and out; and artists pushed the medium in new directions, drawing with light to create unique abstract sculptures.

Even if giant television screens and lighted billboards have replaced the extravagant neon “spectaculars” of old in New York City’s Times Square and elsewhere, neon still illuminates the night in cities and towns worldwide, from Las Vegas to Tokyo and beyond. And what of the first neon signs in the United States? Packard cars are long gone, but Earle C. Anthony’s showroom remains standing in downtown Los Angeles. Over the entrance a replica neon sign advertises the building’s new function in a brilliant blue-white glow: “Packard Lofts.”

Jane E. Boyd, Ph.D., is an art historian, an independent curator, and a freelance writer and editor in Philadelphia. Joseph Rucker, Ph.D., is a biochemist and the director of research and development at Integral Molecular, Inc., a Philadelphia biotechnology firm.