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.

Click To Read Transcript


  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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