A Brief History of the Illuminated Sign

A Brief History of the Illuminated SignThere have been lots of songs about illuminated/neon signs, and the 80s made them a staple of many MTV videos, but the science behind them, hasn’t necessarily translated into popular consciousness.  Neon signs work by filling glass tubes, formed in a decorative shape or letters, with a gas.  Passing a high-voltage electrical current through this tubing creates a reaction that causes light.  The gas used was initially neon, hence the name “neon sign”, but now other gases are used.   The various colors of neon, or illuminated, signs are created by using phosphor coatings and various tints on the glass tubes, which can produce over 50 distinct and brilliant colors.

Illuminated signs range from the modest sign for Speakeasy Ale on a pub’s window, to multi-story displays in Reno or Las Vegas casino.  How did they begin?  Scientific experiments involving exposing various gases to high-voltage currents, led to the first success in producing light this way.  By passing high-voltage alternating current through a low-pressure gas sealed in a glass tube, the scientist Heinrich Geissler produced a light source, back in 1856.   As experimentation continued, scientists found that nearly all gases would conduct electricity and produce light.  However, there was one problem, most of the common gases reacted with the current-carrying electrodes, progressively reducing the efficiency of the electrodes until they failed to produce light.

Over forty years later, two tinkerers (Sir William Ramsay and Morris William Travers) got around this by discovering fractional distillation, and in the process rare gases (i.e., argon, neon, krypton, and xenon), which were able to produce a range of colors (from bright reddish-orange to intense grayish-blue or violet), and were chemically inert, meaning unreactive with the electrodes.   Georges Claude of France and Karl von Linde of Germany discovered how to economically produce neon (an accidentally side-discovery, as they were initially looking to produce oxygen for certain industries), they also found that there was a substantial market for neon signs and thus the commercialization of neon signs began.

Today, neon or illuminated sign design developments have eliminated the hum that accompanied predecessor signs. Signs can blink or move by electronic controls, like those used to create cascading lights along the San Francisco Bay Bridge, and  neon signs are now available in consumer products (e.g., license plate frames). Furthermore, most business today chooses to incorporate illuminated or neon signage because visual is the key to marketing. Most people gets attracted to a object or product because of a signal whether it’s a sound or color they like. When someone has to choose a regular and lighted business sign, they will mostly choose the one with lighting because their eyes are attracted to that particular sign. Neon lights may have a bad misconception of inappropriate things such as the “red light” district, the image is changing and most people do not see it as a bad signal.


“Which element is in illuminated signs?”, Wiki Answers, http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Which_element_is_in_illuminated_signs

“Lighted Signs & Illuminated Signs for Placement for Exterior Building Exposure”, Blue Pond Signs, http://www.bluepondsigns.com/illuminated-signs.html     

“Neow Sign”, Made How, http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Neon-Sign.html

Sita Cole has worked in the marketing industry for a number of years and specialize in creating business signage. Feel free to connect with her over at G+.

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