A short history of neon signs

Posted on by Guy Cookson

Market Street, San Francisco, from 1958

Market Street, San Francisco, from 1958

I thought this episode of 99% Invisible by Avery Trufelman on the history of neon signs was fascinating:

Neon gas was discovered in 1898 by Scottish scientist Sir William Ramsay, who named it for the Greek neos (meaning new).

The use of neon in signage was pioneered by a Frenchman named Georges Claude in the early 1900s, starting in Paris. By the 1930s, there were 20,000 neon advertisements in Manhattan and Brooklyn, most of them from Claude Neon.

Initially, neon was used to adorn high-end venues and restaurants, and conjured associations of bright-lit city life.

Over the years, as white flight depleted downtown, neon became, to many, a symbol of seedy establishments, and flickering metaphor for loneliness in society.

Today, despite the thriving LED market, neon is enjoying a modest resurgence, with some demand returning for neon art and signs. This demand is met by tube benders, craftspeople who manually heat and flex straight glass tubes into letters and other shapes.

Even neon signs mass-produced in China are twisted into shape by hand. And most large neon works on the street were painstakingly produced, one at a time, usually by local benders.

Listen to the episode here.

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