10. Neon: A Sign Of The Times

Neon may no longer be “the new one,” but it might have a better claim to the name than any other element on the periodic table.

Featured above: A Nixie Tube display. Photo by Hiroyuki Takeda.

Show Notes

Mark Bilbake, Sir William Ramsay. 1913, oil on canvas.

Now Named Neon, Not Novum: Ramsay’s 13-year-old son had happened to show up at his father’s lab to see krypton the day element ten was discovered. “What are you going to call it?” his father asked. “I should call it novum,” came his son’s reply. “I think we had better go with the Greek, and call it ‘neon,'” William decided.

Sir William Ramsay, successfully toeing the line between letting his son do something pretty neat, and making sure it was consistent with the naming schema of previously discovered elements. Truly an inspiration.

The Oldest New Sign: The Packard sign in Los Angeles is often called the first neon sign in America, but some recent research suggest that might not be the case. It doesn’t seem entirely conclusive to me, so I avoided explicitly stating either way in the episode.

Red Light, Red Armband: Georges Claude was making headlines again some time after the invention of neon lamps — this time, because he was quite the proponent of Nazi Germany. He spoke in several newspapers about how collaborating with the Nazis would be a great idea.

He was arrested in 1944 for these views, sentenced to a life term, but freed in 1950 at the age of 79.

Those Neon Art Displays: There’s actually no shortage of neon art installations, including some spaces dedicated entirely to the medium. Las Vegas has The Neon Museum; London is home to Gods Own Junkyard, a combination gallery and made-to-order shop; and Let There Be Neon has been open in New York City for over four decades. It should be no surprise that each is rather unconventional.

Of Course: Steve Wozniak is the person who most famously wears a Nixie watch, but notably, he mentions that it terrifies his fellow airplane passengers. You’ve been advised.

Episode Script

Andrew Meieran was inspecting the dark storeroom of the dilapidated Los Angeles cafeteria he had recently purchased when he thought he saw a faint light radiating from behind one of the walls. Curious, he turned off his flashlight, then started picking away at the wall. The light grew brighter, and eventually, Meieran tore away the whole thing, revealing six rows of neon tubes — as functional and bright as they had been since the day they were installed 77 years earlier, in 1935.

The lights had never been turned off at all. They were hooked directly into the electrical system, with no power switch. During renovations in 1949, for some unknown reason, workers simply walled up the neon lights and never disconnected the electricity. They just kept humming along as the decades rolled by, a warm, living archaeological find.

It’s uncommon for glass tubes and metal transformers to last that long, but that reliability is pretty characteristic for neon itself: In stark contrast to fluorine, neon is the single most unreactive element on the periodic table. It combines with nothing, not even itself, like nitrogen and oxygen can — neon atoms remain solitary and pure. And if you run an electrical current through them, they’ll glow brightly. There is a light that never goes out in Clifton’s Cafeteria, thanks to the stability of neon — and the fact that over all those years, somebody paid the grand total of $17,000 in electric bills.1

You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.

Today, we’re getting excited about neon.

If there’s one thing most people know about neon, it’s that it glows in electric signs. This was one of the first things its discoverers learned, as well. William Ramsay and his assistant, Morris Travers, didn’t need to turn to the spectroscope to discern the unique pattern of light given off by element ten. Travers wrote of the experience, rather eccentrically in the third person:

As Ramsay pressed down the commutator of the induction coil, he and Travers each picked up one of the direct-vision prisms, which always lay at hand on the bench, hoping to see in the spectrum of the gas in the tube some very distinctive lines, or groups of lines. But they did not need to use prisms, for the blaze of crimson light from the tube, quite unexpected, held them for some moments spell-bound.”

Neon’s nucleus is quite stable — but so is its electron configuration. So how does this happen?

It’s actually because of neon’s electrical stability that it can perform this trick. Like all the noble gases, neon has a full valence shell, and it prefers to stay that way. As you probably know if you’ve listened to prior episodes, this is why neon doesn’t bond with any other atoms. But if you take a tube full of neon gas, and pump it full of electrical energy, its valence electrons will jump into a shell farther out from the nucleus in what’s called an excited state.

But it can only stay there as long as the atom is getting pumped full of energy. After the briefest of moments, those electrons fall back into their original shell. But the energy the atom absorbed has to go somewhere, so it gets released as light.

Imagine a body builder lifting a heavy barbell over his head. This requires a lot of energy! Eventually, he’ll get tired and need to drop the barbell. When he does, he grunts loudly and relaxes. This is kind of analogous to what’s going on inside a neon lamp: millions and millions of strongman atoms getting pumped full of energy, then releasing that energy in dramatic fashion.

This was the phenomenon Ramsay and Travers witnessed upon distilling the new element. And at the suggestion of Ramsay’s thirteen-year-old son, Willie, they named it “neon,” from the Greek for “new.”2

That might seem rather short-sighted, since neon would only be “the new one” until the next element would inevitably be discovered. It seems like a particularly embarrassing oversight since it was only three weeks later that Ramsay and Travers discovered another new element, xenon.

But from another perspective, no other element deserves the name more, because element 10 may be the perfect symbol of modernity.

Modernity is something more than the conventional meaning of “modern” as current or contemporary. It’s the name given to a social movement that threw off the shackles of traditionalism.3

For most of human history, social roles were performed because “that was the way it had always been done.” It didn’t matter if the king was good or bad at his job — he was the king. That’s just the way things were. But there came a point in history when people started questioning whether that was enough of a reason to uphold old social norms.

Increasingly, the answer was “no.” Feudalism gave way to market economies; caste systems were eschewed in favor of class and individualism; and societies were increasingly urban, democratic, and mechanized.

There’s no clear start date for when modernity began — it describes a process as much as it describes an era. Some historians place the start of modernity as far back as Gutenberg’s printing press, others at the start of the French Revolution. But there’s no doubt that society was fully in the throes of modernity by the time Georges Claude started selling neon lamps in 1910.

Claude unveiled his invention at the Paris Motor Show, and while he admitted neon’s crimson light was less than ideal for illuminating the home, he thought it would be great for advertising. He couldn’t have been more right. Neon was quickly embraced by commercial ventures of all sizes as a way to stand out from the crowd.

A Packard car dealership made waves in Los Angeles when it mounted an enormous neon sign, causing nearby traffic to come to a standstill. The crimson blaze had quickly found its place among the cacophonous landscape of roaring combustion engines, skyscrapers stretching ever-higher, and the revolutionary sights and sounds of cinema and jazz. Neon signs were a boon for businesses large and small, and eventually came to define the aesthetic of cities around the world, from Las Vegas to Havana to Tokyo, each in their own way.

New York City’s Times Square, in particular, became a monument to advertising in the medium of light. Some ads became world-famous: The Camel man who blew smoke rings, a hand pulling tissues from a Kleenex box, a non-stop stream of Planters Peanuts.4

But neon’s heyday didn’t last long. Eventually, it was superseded by more durable fluorescent lights, which could backlight plastic sheets that weren’t limited to a single color. Neon became more strongly linked with run-down bars and payday loan services. As Times Square became largely renowned for seedy sex shops in the 1970s, so too was neon’s reputation tarnished by association.

Nowadays, LED signs dominate the street advertising industry. They don’t require skilled craftsmanship to produce, and they use less electricity, making them cheaper both to purchase and operate. LEDs are brighter than neon lights, and they’re essentially enormous video screens that can change their full-color displays in an instant — unlike the relatively static line art provided by a neon sign.5

Neon signs could be made in any shape or size, in garish colors that had never been used before. They were integral to the identities of new urban centers. But modernity has no sense of loyalty. As soon as neon was an established tradition of illumination and advertising, it became an expectation to defy. And a society so concerned with bottom lines and catching eyes has little sympathy for a craft so dependent on the skill and patience of talented artisans who can bend glass into intricate shapes.

Neon lamps are far from extinct, but in 2018, it’s clear that their best days are behind them. As they slowly disappear from shop windows and billboards, neon lights are increasingly relegated to art galleries and museums — places reserved for precious things that someone thought were worth preserving.6

Modernity’s rallying cry, popularized by Ezra Pound, was “Make it new!” Element ten did just that to light itself, and even carried newness in its name. Even though the light in the glass tube may have dulled somewhat, neon will always be modern.

You probably have a good idea of where you could procure some neon for your collection. And you certainly could purchase a luminous sign, but those are delicate, and tend to take up a lot of space.

Neon has popped up in several other displays over time. The world’s first electronic calculator, the Anita, showed truly eye-catching  neon numerals, one of the few examples of a retro-futurist aesthetic outside of fiction. These neon lights were called Nixie Tubes, supposedly derived from their original name of “Numeric Indicator Experimental no. 1.” Other companies patented similar lights under names like “Digitron” and “Numicator.”

Anita calculators are pretty difficult to come by, even on eBay. However, at least one company would be happy to sell you a wristwatch based on Nixie technology for the low low price of $595, plus shipping and handling. It would be quite a fashion statement in the era of smartwatches.7

Surprisingly, neon is still used in some state-of-the-art displays today; namely, plasma televisions. Each pixel of a plasma display is powered by atoms of neon and xenon constantly undergoing a process similar to the one happening in neon signs.8  So if you’ve been thinking about buying a fancy new TV, now you have the perfect excuse to splurge: It’s for science!

Thanks for listening to the Episodic Table of Elements.

Music is by Kai Engel. To learn about some prominent neon art galleries to visit, the ignominious fate of Georges Claude, and which celebrity nerd proudly wears a Nixie wristwatch, visit episodic table dot com slash neon.

Next time, we’ll discuss sodium — no lye.

This is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that you don’t have to put on the red light.

Sources

  1. The Los Angeles Times, A Landmark’s Light Fantastic. Bob Pool, May 26, 2012.
  2. Flickering Light: A History of Neon. Christoph Rabbat, English translation published 2013.
  3. Enecyclopedia Britannica, Modernity. Sharon L. Snyder, last updated May 20, 2016.
  4. The New York Times, Douglas Leigh, the Man Who Lit Up Broadway, Dies at 92. Douglas Martin, December 16, 1999.
  5. WNYC, Let There Be Neon. Sarah Kate Kramer, September 21, 2011.
  6. Newsweek, Why Neon Is Cool Again. Claire Shaffer, August 23, 2017.
  7. The Round Nixie Watch from Cathode Corner
  8. How Stuff Works, How Plasma Displays Work. Tom Harris.

4 Replies to “10. Neon: A Sign Of The Times”

    1. Neon is pretty efficient! A small neon sign draws about as much power as an incandescent light bulb — the kind with a tungsten filament — but is a little bit brighter. Fluorescent bulbs are usually a little more efficient than neon bulbs, and LEDs are the most efficient of all.
      Thanks for listening!

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