Exploring Antique Technologies
by Kary Pardy
Considered ideal Man Cave accessories for their flashy glow and their connection to popular brands, neon lights made a splash in advertising throughout the twentieth century and have been mounting a comeback. Could your décor use a non-traditional pop of color? Consider adding a bit of neon to your collection. This technology has held its value, even when relegated to the finished basement, barns, and man caves of the world.
Turning on the Light
Scientists have been playing around with glowing gasses for years. In 1675, Jean Piccard (also famous for computing the size of the earth) purportedly observed that a tube of mercury glowed when he shook it. The scientific community took notice, and some focused their experiments on gasses as potential light sources.
In 1898, M. W. Travers and William Ramsey discovered a new gas, and it was named “neon” for the Greek “neos,” meaning “the new one.” Neon exists in the atmosphere but was collected by liquifying air and separating it via fractional distillation. Once accessed, the French inventor Georges Claude became the first person to apply an electrical discharge to a tube of neon gas, making a lamp. Claude’s early 20th century discovery progressed to a patent, and then a company called Claude Neon, which sold its first US signs to a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles. From there, neon took off as a tool for outdoor advertising. Its appeal came from its bright colors and powerful light, which was visible even during the day.
World War II brought with it a decrease in neon sign usage, including what Popular Mechanics referred to in 1942 as a “dim out” for New York City. Light pollution from Manhattan was illuminating the ocean and enabling German submarines to spot ships moving on top of the water. Dimming the lights also saved valuable fuel. The neon did not go dark for long, however. After the war, the US government funded the Egani Institute in New York to provide veterans with vocational training in neon sign manufacturing. Neon has since been a beloved advertising tool, giving way to LED lights and the bright digital displays of the modern era, but still holding a place in the hearts of many who appreciate the constant glow and artistry.
But how does neon sign technology work? The inner workings of neon signs are filled with interesting chemical reactions, but at their most basic, a glass tube is first evacuated of air. Then, neon is backfilled into the tube and sealed off. There are electrode terminals at either end of the tube. When an electric voltage is applied to the terminals, enough energy is produced to remove an outer electron from the neon atoms. If you remember your chemistry, you know that neon is a Noble gas, and each atom has a filled electron shell, so the atoms are not looking to react with other atoms and swap electrons – their shells are already complete. Because of this, it takes energy to remove an electron. When that energy is applied, you get a visible reaction. Atoms are bouncing around and electrons are becoming “excited,” and the only way to return to a normal state is to release the energy as a photon, aka light.
Collecting Neon Signage
Neon has vintage appeal: it’s vibrant and a little kitschy, but ultimately nostalgic, and there is value in the craftsmanship and style of these pieces. Signs from the 1930s can bring over ten thousand dollars, but more recent retro pieces, such as from the 1980s, can be had for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on condition and quality. The United States market for these pieces is as vibrant as the signs themselves, with shops reporting that demand is much higher than the actual available number of pieces can accommodate. It’s a seller’s market, which has fueled the businesses of neon sign restorers and current day neon artists.