Neon signs are used around the world to illuminate the night sky and attract passers-by to hotels, restaurants, casinos and shops.
A noble gas, the word neon is actually based on the Greek word Neos, which means ‘new’ or ‘new one’, yet neon has been around for as long as we have existed.
Both rare and in abundance in our universe, this intriguing and remarkable gas is commonly found in stars and is the fifth most common element in the universe, however, here on earth it’s pretty difficult to find and expensive to produce.
Colorless and with no smell, it has many uses, from lasers and candy-colored signs along the highway to guiding aircraft through the night and dense fog.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at the history of neon lights and discover some fun facts about neon, like how they are actually made and manufactured, and why they continue to bring cities to life when the sun goes down.
Why They Are So Popular Worldwide
We are drawn to the warm glow of neon lights, whether it’s a hotel sign on the highway or a bright red ‘Open’ sign outside a convenience store, the soft hue of a neon billboard can fill you excitement.
A gentle red or orange hue against the jet black night sky is so appealing and perhaps the reason why so many businesses invest heavily in neon signage.
As many cities come to life as the sun sets, such as Las Vegas and Shanghai, neon lights entice and welcome tourists to the city, almost beckoning them forward with their beautiful display.
BTW - You might also be interested to find out how do neon signs work?
Las Vegas The City Of Neon Signs
In 1936, Las Vegas installed one of the city’s very first neon signs at Fremont Eat’s Boulder Club.
Like a shining star in the night sky, the neon sign made way for a whole new approach to marketing clubs, hotels and casinos across the US.
These days when you think of the city that never sleeps, you can’t picture Las Vegas without neon signs coming to mind.
But this wasn’t the first city to take advantage of neon technology.
Los Angeles Neon Signs Stops Traffic
13 years before Las Vegas introduced its first neon display, Georges Claude and his French company Neon Claude sold 2 neon billboards to Earle C. Anthony in 1923, who imported them to Los Angeles to promote his car dealership.
Costing him $24,000 at the time, which was a significant amount of money, the investment certainly paid off for Earle C. Anthony.
The red and blue ‘Packard’ neon sign sat 4 foot above the road and caused chaos below, as traffic came to a complete standstill when passers-by stopped in awe to take in the neon glow.
Dubbed liquid fire at the time, the congestion became so bad the police were forced to take action and keep traffic moving.
Asia’s Obsession With Neon Signs
From Hong Kong and Shanghai to Seoul and Tokyo, neon lights are extremely popular across Asia.
In 1926, a few years after Earle C. Anthony, Japan got its first neon sign in Tokyo and was used to advertise a bakery.
Since then the country’s love affair with all things neon has remained strong.
After World War II, the popularity of neon signs took off across Japan, and beautiful neon displays helped the country to advertise and market brands, products and services.
Today many of the landmarks and tourist attractions, hotel, casinos and landmarks across China, Japan and South Korea are enhanced with neon lights.
A fantastic marketing strategy, the artificial stars of the city undoubtedly help boost tourism and give businesses a way to market themselves as the night sets in.
The History Behind Neon Lights
As we’ve previously mentioned, neon is in fact a naturally occurring element, but harboring its power and creating beautiful neon signs is down to one man.
French engineer and inventor, Georges Claude invented and commercialized neon lights in 1902.
Taking leftover neon from his air liquefaction company, he passed an electric current through a sealed tube of neon gas, which caused a reaction that produced the bright, red and orange light that we now know today as neon.
In his workshop, artisans known as tube benders created neon signs by hand. Attaching electrodes to each end of the tube, the gas was trapped and the neon lights would glow.
Believing it would be used primarily for interior lights, Georges Claude revealed his first neon sign at the Paris Motor Show in 1910.
With not much interest as interior lighting, he eventually switched his focus to promoting and creating neon signage which proved to be hugely popular around the world.
The Science Behind Neon
When a high voltage of electricity is passed through the tubes of neon gas, it accelerates the electrons in neon atoms and causes them to break free of their orbits, leaving behind positively charged ions.
On a collision course with other neon atoms, these free electrons cause them to ionize too.
When the electrons go back to their normal energy levels, excess energy is carried away by photons, which are particles of light.
The photons are what produce the warm glow of a neon display.
Chemist William Ramsay
How did was neon first discovered? Well, the element was first discovered by British chemist Sir William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers in 1898.
Studying the periodic tablet, the two scientists refused to accept that there was no element between helium and argon.
So in a bid to prove themselves right, they set about chilling a sample of air until it was liquid.
Next, the scientists captured the gases that were produced when the liquid was boiled. Three new gases were discovered; krypton, neon and xenon.
Despite the remarkable discovery of neon, it’s unlikely that William Ramsay would have known just how much we would use and love neon today.
What Are Neon Signs Filled With?
The process of making a neon sign can be quite complex and can use 5 gases to produce one multi-colored neon light.
A neon display is made up of a collection of glass tubes which are carefully filled with a gas and molded into a specific design or range of letters.
A high-voltage electric current is then passed through the gas and the neon tubes emit a beautiful red or orange glow.
These days, neon displays can also feature other colors and tones, and this is made possible by using argon gas.
The glass tubes can also be tinted different colors too, using a phosphor coating, giving neon sign customers the opportunity to really get creative with their neon displays.
If you spot a yellow, blue, purple or even white neon sign, this means that the glass tubes are filled with argon gas rather than neon.
If you really want to show-off when it comes to promoting your business at night, you can even invest in a more expensive pigmented glass tubing to achieve colors such as ruby red, gold and emerald green.
Since neon is the most striking and bright gas to use, it’s best to use argon for any subtle colors, rather than your main design or lettering.
Neon Gas & Colors
- Neon: Orange or red warm glow.
- Argon: Pale purple or lilac.
- Helium: Dusty pink or soft rose.
- Krypton: Silver or white hue.
- Xenon: Light purple.
Combining colored phosphor coating with each gas will allow you to create a wide range of different colors and tones.
So if you want to create a neon sign that reflects your business and brand, or an illuminated picture, you can with neon signage and the right mix of gas, electricity and tinted glass tubes.
Are All Neon Signs Made with Neon Gas?
When you see the bright red glow of a neon display, this is the result of neon gas and a high voltage current, but notice any other colors and what you’re looking at is likely to be an argon fueled light or billboard.
This fluorescent lighting is stunning and will certainly look great against the night sky, but it’s not a true neon light.
To power a real neon sign you’ll need a neon transformer.
This will supply your neon sign with enough electricity to illuminate the sky throughout the night.
The sheer power of the neon transformer is enough to cause a lethal shock.
Electrocution is a serious and possible risk when using neon displays and that’s why it’s so important to invest in a neon sign created by an established business, rather than buy a second-hand sign or a night lamp from an unknown supplier.
Plus, most customers require personalization when it comes to their neon displays or billboards, so it just makes sense to buy your sign from an expert and specialist.
What Does A Traditional Glass and Gas Neon Sign Cost?
Creating a traditional neon sign takes craftsmanship. To shape the glass neon tubes to your exact design requires a special technique called glassblowing.
Since this is a rare skill to have, it reflects the price of designing your own custom-made sign.
Here’s how a traditional neon light is made:
1: A customer wants to promote their business by purchasing a nice bright sign. With a design in mind, they contact a specialist manufacturing company.
2: The neon design team analyze the design and discuss the concept with the customer. Once they reach a final idea, work can begin on manufacturing the neon display. First, a pattern is needed and drawn out on a fire-resistant sheet of paper.
3: Using a propane flame at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, the glass is then heated to a desired and workable temperature, and the glass neon tubes are carefully molded into letters or shapes. This process takes a lot of time, precision and skill.
4: Once the design is complete, the glass neon tubes are connected to a high-quality vacuum pump in order to remove all air and anything else inside the glass. The gas, whether it be neon or argon is then put into the neon signage, a process known as bombarding.
5: The neon transformer is then used to power the sign, which is then checked against a black background for any defects or flaws. If there are any issues with the sign it can be altered or re-made.
Since this process takes a lot of time and skill, the average price for a customized sign can be around $50 per letter.
Depending on the design you want to have and the size of the signage you need will reflect the price you pay for a custom made concept.
Final Thoughts On How Neon Signs Are Made - LED's Are The Future!
To conclude this post looking at the question - how are neon signs made? You should now be able to see the process of making neon signs is complicated and costly.
Not only that but the signs are expensive, hard to install, hard to maintain and very energy inefficient.
However, with the development of new digital, electronic technology, you can now choose a far more efficient and safer alternative to traditional neon designs.
More affordable, less fragile and far more energy-efficient, enjoy the beauty and glow of a neon light without the huge investment and need for transformers, etc.
We have a huge range of sculptures and over 1,000 set designs in an array of colors for you to choose from.
If you require something completely bespoke, we can even custom-make LED designs to your exact requirements.
If you would like a free quote for a custom made LED sign, feel free to contact our team today or click here to take a look at our neon Japanese sign collection or here to find a custom neon signs for sale.