January 2010 History Matters: The Light Fantastic

By David A. Fryxell Premium

The next time you admire the neon extravaganza of Las Vegas, the Art Deco illuminations of Miami’s South Beach or the blinking “Eat at Joe’s” sign down the street, say merci to French inventor, entrepreneur and convicted traitor Georges Claude. One hundred years ago, in 1910, Claude exhibited the first neon sign at the Grand Palais in Paris. At one time, his Claude Neon company was so ubiquitous that many people thought “neon” was the inventor’s last name, rather than the gas used to make his creations glow.
Long before Claude’s incandescent success and subsequent disgrace, other scientists had tried to apply fluorescence to lighting. Certain gases glow when they come in contact with energy. Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli accidentally discovered the phenomenon in 1644 after constructing the first mercury column barometer: When he shook the instrument, it glowed blue. Later investigators, including Ben Franklin, learned that the color emitted in such an “electrified atmosphere” depended on the gas and the amount of pressure. In 1744, Johann Henrich Windler, a professor in Leipzig, bent a heated glass tube to form a glowing name.
But a sign that swiftly lost its light wouldn’t attract many patrons, and early trailblazers couldn’t keep their pressures constant or the gases pure. German glassblower Heinrich Geissler solved the problem in 1858 by inserting platinum wire into the tube, which enabled a vacuum-tight seal. In 1892, Nicola Tesla, a Serbian-born inventor—and rival of Thomas Edison—employed Geissler tubes in eye-catching demonstrations in London and Paris. Tesla filled the tubes with gases and coated them with phosphor, then bombarded them with high-voltage alternating current. One glowing tube spelled out the word LIGHT.
But the gas inside was quickly used up, making Geissler tubes impractical for commercial use until an American, D. McFarland Moore, figured out an automatic refilling mechanism. The first sign using Moore’s technology lit up a Newark, NJ, hardware store in 1904. At almost 3 inches in diameter and up to 9 feet in length, however, Moore’s tubes didn’t lend themselves easily to artistry. But General Electric recognized their potential for lighting and snapped up Moore’s patents.
The glamour of Times Square and Vegas had to wait for the discovery of neon. Moore had been limited to common atmospheric gases such as nitrogen. Neon, although the fourth-most-abundant element in the universe, is rare in earth’s atmosphere. Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsey and English colleague Morris Travers discovered neon in 1898, naming it from the Greek word neos, for “new.” (Neon and the other noble gases were so named for their lack of reactivity with more common elements.) Because neon glows bright red in a vacuum tube with even a small electric current, the breakthrough had far-reaching applications for signage.
But Georges Claude, born in Paris in 1870, did not set out to etch “Eat at Joe’s” into the night sky. Claude studied physics and chemistry in school but dropped out at 19 to work for Paris’ municipal electric company. At age 27, Claude developed a safer way to handle acetylene gas, which was used for lighting. He then set to work on the challenge of producing oxygen for use in welding and by hospitals.
Carl von Linde, a German engineer, had first liquefied air at extremely cold temperatures in 1895. In 1902, he succeeded in separating oxygen and nitrogen from air by distillation. The lubricants used solidified at subzero temperatures, however, making the process commercially impractical until Claude created a lubricant that could handle the cold.
But what to do with the gases—such as neon—that were left over after producing pure nitrogen and oxygen? By experimenting with waste gases, vacuum technology and electrodes in a Moore tube, Claude came up with a neon-filled tube that glowed an intense red. He fashioned it into a sign and, in 1910, made history with what awestruck onlookers called “liquid fire.”
Claude’s efforts to cash in on neon signs were interrupted by the outbreak of the Great War. In 1914, assigned to the French Army, he developed a technology for liquefying chlorine gas—enabling the French to quickly match the Germans’ chlorine-gas attacks.

Claude patented his neon-purification process and electrodes in 1915, and after the end of the war, he began selling neon signs in France. His first two US signs, which cost $1,250 each, adorned Earle C. Anthony’s Packard dealership in Los Angeles in 1922. Soon the Claude Neon company began selling franchises, for $100,000 plus royalties.

Neon technology was so lucrative that a patent war broke out as Claude’s former employees setting up their own shops. Claude won a bitter court battle in 1928, when a judge decreed, “Georges Claude was the true, first and original inventor and discover” of neon lights.

It was all downhill for Claude after that triumph, however. He blew most of his neon-light fortune on a scheme to generate electricity by bringing cold water from the ocean depths into contact with warm surface water. And although Claude had been decorated for his WWI efforts, in World War II his royalist sentiments—and lingering resentment over what he viewed as snubs by the French government—led Claude to propagandize for voluntary cooperation with the Nazi invaders. In 1945, Claude was stripped of his honors and sentenced to life in prison for treason.

After pleas from France’s leading scientists, Claude got parole in 1950 at age 79. He died in 1960—but not before seeing his invention light up the world of postwar commerce.
Various coatings had broadened the palette beyond neon red, giving us blue (argon and mercury), green (argon and mercury in green glass) and yellow (helium in green glass). RCA’s development of color television in the 1950s led to new fluorescent hues using rare-earth minerals. In the 1960s and 1970s, neon was adopted not only for advertising but for art, by such innovators as Bruce Nauman, Stephen Antonakos and John David Mooney. Research in the 1980s sparked by the the previous decade’s energy crises increased the neon-sign spectrum to nearly 100 colors.
Recognition of neon signs as part of our cultural heritage came 86 years after Claude’s history-making sign in Paris, when the The Neon Museum Las Vegas debuted in 1996. “Hacienda Horse and Rider” is now among 10 rescued pieces of neon history clustered near Fremont Street, ranging from the illuminated “Red Barn” cocktail glass to the lamp from the Aladdin Hotel. As Georges Claude surely would have said, “C’est magnifique.”
Fun Facts

  • Neon is odorless, tasteless and colorless.
  • Neon gas becomes liquid at minus 410 degrees Fahrenheit and solid at 415 degrees below zero.
  • To date, scientists have been unable to make neon react with any element or compound.
  • The neon sign erected at Las Vegas’ Nevada Motel in 1951 was the first appearance of “Vegas Vic,” the city’s unofficial cowboy mascot.
In Time
1858 Heinrich Geissler perfects the glass tube vacuum

1892 Nicola Tesla spells LIGHT in glowing gases

1898 Ramsay and Travers discover neon

1904 D. McFarland Moore installs glowing-gas sign

1910 Georges Claude displays first neon sign in Paris

1922 First US neon signs light up

1932 Claude’s patent expires, neon signs boom

1941 El Rancho Vegas opens, launching the Las Vegas Strip

2006 Neon signs by Artkraft Strauss sell at auction for more than $100,000

From the January 2010 Family Tree Magazine