Friday, 15 November 2013

15/11/13 - Neon

Neon signs are one of those modern(ish) miracles that we take completely for granted, but they really are clever little things. Well, not always little. Massive, sometimes. Piccadilly Circus or Times Square would be anonymous junctions without their vast swathes of shiny coloured lights, and the ubiquity of the neon light over the decades demonstrates just how versatile and well-liked they are.

The way they work is this: neon is an inert gas, a chemical element that exists within the Earth’s atmosphere, and when neon is sealed in a glass tube with a metal electrode at either end, you can chuck a handful of volts at the electrodes to ionize the gas, causing it to emit light by fluorescence. Now, the natural colour of a neon light is red. So why do we so often see them in other colours? Painted glass? Clever tinting? No, it’s because other gases can be used to create different colours – mercury for blue, helium for yellow, carbon dioxide for white – when we talk about ‘neon lights’, it’s actually a pretty non-specific (and frequently inaccurate) term.

Neon itself was discovered in 1898 and, impressively, was pressed into the duty of creating light almost immediately - William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers, the discoverers, tested its properties in an electrical gas-discharge tube and were mesmerised by the crimson glow. By 1902, a chap named Georges Claude – often dubbed ‘the Edison of France’ – was experimenting with neon lighting at his Air Liquide facility, with the company producing industrial quantities of purified neon. In 1910, Claude erected two mighty red neon tubes at the Paris Motor Show and immediately had the world’s attention: people could suddenly see the commercial possibilities. He was quick to patent the tech in the US, and basically monopolised the industry over there through to the 1930s.
In 1913, Claude and his associate Jacques Fonseque developed a huge sign for Cinzano in Paris, which caused a few jaws to drop, but it was the US that really embraced the new tech with gusto…

In 1923, businessman Earle C. Anthony ordered two custom neon signs for his Packard dealership in Los Angeles. The Angelenos were so astonished by this heavenly glowing vision that the signs literally stopped traffic; indeed, police had to be drafted in to control the hysterical crowds. Presumably Anthony shifted a few extra Packards off the back of it too…
By 1931, the neon sign business in the US was worth $16.9m, in large part still controlled by Claude Neon Lights, Inc. However, Claude’s patent expired in ’32, opening the door to all manner of manufacturers and distributors – the 1930s really were the golden age of neon, with companies and advertisers experimenting with countless styles of signs – movement, fog, sound effects and scents were all tried with varying levels of success.

The US may be the spiritual home of the neon light, but the rest of the world have had their fun with it too. France will always be its true home, of course; one notable early example is that in 1925, André Citroën rented the Eiffel Tower and had it emblazoned from top to bottom with the ‘Citroën’ name in glorious neon. It proved so popular that he kept doing it until 1934. And naturally there are the incredibly long-running signs of Piccadilly Circus – Coca Cola have been advertising there since 1954, McDonald’s replaced BASF in 1987, and TDK’s sign, installed in 1990, remained unchanged for twenty years before someone saw fit to remove the bit that said ‘audio & video tape’ and ‘floppy disks’ beneath the logo. (Incidentally, the site currently occupied by TDK was owned by Schweppes from 1920-61, then BP, followed by Cinzano, Fujifilm and Kodak.) There even used to be a huge moving Guinness clock, artfully crafted from neon tubes.

My favourite neon sign, however, is altogether more subtle. Forget Vegas Vic, the 40-foot high cowboy on the Pioneer Club in Las Vegas, or the Coppertone girl in Miami – I like the Lucozade sign on the M4. It’s on the side of a building in Brentford, visible to traffic travelling towards London. It was installed as a sort of ‘kinetic sculpture’ in 1954, and remained there until 2004 when it was given to the Gunnersbury Museum. Local residents were miffed at losing such an important icon of local history, so an identical sign was made up to replace it, and there it remains to this day. (See here.)

Neon lights are quite retro now, of course. The enthusiasm for bending glass tubes into weird shapes really began to wane in the 1970s when it became more popular to employ fluorescent-lit plastic tubes, and the old signs are increasingly being replaced by LEDs today, which are considered less wasteful in terms of energy. All of which means, naturally, that vintage neon signs are true collectors’ items, reminiscent of a more excitable age. So if you want to liven up your padded leather bar in the corner of your living room, you’d better go and pinch the Guinness lights from your local dive bar’s window, before the things die out entirely…

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