In 1897, commemorating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, Sir
William Ramsey and Morris Travers displayed Geissler tubes filled with argon, neon, krypton, and xenon. They
had found a process to distillate liquid air and make it possible to isolate the rare gases.The
brilliant light was resistant to oxidation and promised a new stage in tube lighting. The cost, however, was too great for
viable mass production.
In 1907, it was a Frenchman, Georges Claude (and
simultaneously Karl von Linde in Germany) who discovered a high-quality method of producing oxygen, which
was in high demand by hospitals. A bi-product was a sizable quantity of leftover rare gases.
Claude experimented with the gases using Moore glass tubes. By filling the tubes with neon and bombarding
them with electricity he achieved a clear intense red; with argon he produced a grayish blue. He found that by coating the
interior surface of the glass he could increase the range of basic colors.
In 1910 he exhibited his lights at the Grand Palais in Paris, and five years later he got a patent
for electrode possessing highly resistant to corrosion. His method was simpler and more practical than Moore’s gas-supply
valve. The way was paved for widespread use of tube lighting, and Georges Claude held a virtual monopoly in neon tube manufacturing.
The first neon tube came to the U.S. in 1923. Designed by the Claude Neon Company for Los Angeles Packard
dealer Earl C. Anthony, the lavish "Packard" script was orange; the border clear blue. When installed it became a destination
for drivers and walkers, causing traffic jams. It was love at first sight. Soon neon was ablaze coast to coast, becoming emblematic
of American optimism.
The Chicago World’s Fair in 1934 was the apogee celebration of art of neon and argon– followed
by the Paris fair in 1937 and the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Until the beginning of World War II the demand for
neon was insatiable. But during the war emphasis was on production efficiency rather than design excellence. Gradually "one-of-a-kind"
ingenuity faded and standardization took hold.
But the lights of Times Square, The Great White Way, retained America’s self-imagery and were
central to the excitement of V-E Day, the end of prohibition, Charles de Gaulle’s visit to New York, and, of course,
New Year’s Eves. Then there’s the Vegas Strip.
In the ‘50s and 60's America discovered the wide world of plastics. Colored plexiglass shadow
boxes with fluorescent lighting behind lettering and graphics, was the ‘new look." Neon was disparaged as old-fashioned,
most shops closed, the extraordinary craft of skilled tube benders was abandoned, and much of the ‘institutional memory’
was lost. There was scant incentive for young workers to learn the skill from the ‘old masters.’
In the ‘80s architects, sculptors, and graphic designers rediscovered neon and it became a highly-developed
folk art. It has retained its glamour throughout Europe. But it is Japan that predominates with the biggest production–
and roof-top spectaculars in an astounding array of colors.