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944 6th Avenue
Crockett, CA 94525
United States


Specializing in the creation of custom neon signs and displays.  Extensive experience working with designers, photographers, and the movie and tech industries. Established 1975.


Glass Graphics: The Joy of Signs

William Concannon

Here are some observations about why I like the work I do and how I find meaning in it. I am not talking of my work as a neon sculptor but my day job as someone who makes neon signs. While my perspectives are very personal, I know from talking to other neon artisans that my experience is not that different from theirs. 
I came of age in the Midwest where--as everywhere--neon signs were ubiquitous, from Michigan Avenue where my father’s office was to the small sleepy suburb where we lived. When I was sixteen our family moved to Los Angeles, where I attended Hollywood High School. There was no shortage of neon in Hollywood. Shortly after arriving in LA my father took the family to Las Vegas and seeing those huge moving walls of color for the first time I was reminded of the rock ‘n roll light shows of the era. After college at U.C. Riverside, where I studied Art History and took an occasional side trip to Las Vegas, I moved to Long Beach and apprenticed to John MacLaughlin of Quality Neon. In 1975, I started Aargon Neon. 
Here’s what I like about neon signs: their elegant lines in shocking colors, their garish sense of humor, the occasional howling malapropism, the way the colored light bathes the street scene or makes those crazy swirling patterns in the gravy of my chow fun when I sit under the neon window sign. Neon signs make the unknown familiar but they also tell us something about ourselves and the times we live in. 

Neon signs transform and decorate buildings, and form our image of the urban night.  As a maker of neon signs, I find it satisfying to be part of that process.  At night through Oakland and Berkeley or in my small town of Crockett, I see a nightscape that my fellow neon sign makers and I have some part in shaping.
Neon is the perfect material for making lighted signs. As its bright colored line penetrates the night, neon finds its best application in neon signs depicting line drawings of funky images or as text or as decorative outlines for buildings. 
Many of the signs I make are used in motion pictures or in sets for still advertising photography. For the motion picture industry, neon signs are cheap. When you want a tuna cannery (or a roadhouse) you don’t need to build one or even find one as a location, you can just find an old warehouse and put up a sign that says “Tuna Cannery.” 

In still and motion picture advertising photography neon signs signify the dangerous, the wild, the suspect, the urban “Brand X” in contrast to the safe, the corporate brand, the suburban mall look of individual internally illuminated channel letters.  Such channel letter signs were once internally illuminated with “safe and sane” plastic-covered sanitized neon but are now increasingly lit with LEDs (light emitting diodes.)  City planners sometimes acknowledge the dangerous chaotic and erotic associations with neon in their sign regulations--that is when they are not mandating its use.
But what does all this have to do with art? Actually quite a bit. 
From the 19th century beginnings of gas discharge tubing known as Geissler tubes, “neon-like ” tubes have been used to depict images and text. 
As early as 1923 Sony Deluaney was applying paint on neon tubes to make art signs. In the 1960’s the Pop artists embraced commercial design and brought reprocessed advertising art into our homes as well as our art museums. This art movement produced the culture shift from the days of Peter Blake’s “God’s Own Junkyard” where neon signs were seen as part of “urban blight” to the world we now live in where grandpas have collections of neon beer signs in their garages and labels are on the outside of our clothing. 

A generation beyond Pop, artists such as Lili Lakich and Bruce Nauman used sign techniques and had neon fashioned graphically by neon glass benders to mimic sign conventions. In some of my own sculpture I also use neon graphically and use the cultural associations with neon signs.

Why do I use it?  For the same reason that sign makers use neon: its strong colored line, its graphic directness, its 3-D sculptural physicality. Light has long been used by artists to graphically depict the metaphysical.  As Lili Lakich observes, "Neon makes the metaphor real."

Why do I like making neon signs? I enjoy both the repetition and the challenge of my glass work. Most neon sign shops do not have production items but work as I do on a “one off” basis. Even though there is a lot of repetition, with one heat of the glass tubing following another, we are always encountering something new and solving new problems for the first time. 
The neon tubes found in signs are the last hand-made electric lights in common usage, and almost all neon tubes are made to the human scale. Of the hundreds of millions of neon tubes made annually, all but a very few are made by hand and all have a maximum overall dimension of no more than 8’ in length and weigh no more than two pounds. This is true even on huge Las Vegas displays. 

Neon craft and design techniques are essentially transmitted orally from one generation to the next. While there are some books on how to fabricate neon tubing, almost no one learns solely this way. Most neon “tubebenders” learn from other neon artisans as apprentices, at neon schools, or by finding a mentor to assist when they need help. 

While some neon artisans have a formal design background and training, most learn sign design the same way they learn the neon craft, by a combination of reading books and trade journals, and learning design techniques and approaches from other sign makers.  While most glass artists would hesitate to admit that they copy other artist’s designs, sign makers readily copy designs from other sources and from existing neon signs.  Almost every neon artisan I know has a story about how some “old hand” who showed them how to snag designs for signs out of the Yellow Pages.  Even neon designers with formal training plagiarize; within the sign community that is not necessarily considered a bad thing.

The author Tom Wolfe in his article about neon signs in Las Vegas observed that neon signs were a 20th century form of folk art, and indeed the artisans who make neon signs have many qualities that define the Japanese folk art theory of “mingei.” 

Anonymous artisans make neon signs.  Think of a favorite neon sign you’ve seen while traveling across the country. Do you know who made that sign? Most likely not. While most outdoor signs have small labels that no one but city building inspectors read, most inside signs are “unsigned.” 
Neon signs are functional in daily life and exist in the world of common objects as distinct from “art.”. I personally get satisfaction in making something that is not just about me and my ideas but that serves another person and fits in with their vision and their life. 
One of the most interesting aspects of my work is the randomness of all the weird people I work for: the shopkeepers and restauranteurs, the set builders, designers and photographers. I work with a lot of sole proprietors--people like me who are working on their own, working without a net. 

Unlike my sculpture which is exhibited publicly but which more often than not ends up in storage, my sign work always has a home.


Today neon is threatened commercially by the rise of inexpensively manufactured LED-lit signs. LED signs may have a similar design to neon signs but instead of having the sensuous line of hand made luminous glass tubes, LED signs use a string of very bright machine made plastic points of light which look like so many glowing polka dots strung together.  One of the current selling points of LED lighting for signs besides their unbreakable quality is that “anyone can do it.” By contrast it takes a long time to train and develop the talent of neon glass benders. Neon with its fragility and high labor costs verges on being obsolete, and as this happens it becomes a more interesting art material.


Bill Concannon

Crockett, California

June 2008



From Geissler to Vegas: A Brief History of Neon

William Concannon

An overview of the history of neon from its beginnings in the experimental physics laboratories of the nineteen century to its current commercial and artistic applications. --Bill Concannon, Aargon Neon, Crockett, California.


            I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it.  It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long.  But the colored lights fooled you.  The lights were wonderful.  There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights.  Fifteen stories high, solid marble.  There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.

--Raymond Chandler, “The Little Sister,” 1949


The transformation of phosphor in an amorphic modification does not happen because of light or heat...,it happens by use of electricity.

--Heinrich Geissler, Annalen der Physik und Chemie, 1874


            Neon, that “scarlet whore of the advertising world,” has been around in its current commercial and decorative context in this country since the 1920s, but it has its genesis in the nineteenth century experiments of the first “modern” physicists.  Neon, first discovered in 1898 by Sir William Ramsey and Morris William Travers, is an element which is the second member of the family of inert or rare gases.  Neon also describes a great variety of low-pressure gas-discharge glass tubing displays using various inert gases ionized by a high voltage electrical charge.  I will briefly discuss this history and connect “neon’s” origins with its current uses.

            Following early, eighteenth century attempts--such as those by Francis Hawksbee and Johann Heinrich Winkler--at producing light in glass vessels using static electricity, the first modern luminous gas discharge tubes were produced by Heinrich Geissler with physicist Julius Plucker in 1858 and powered by an induction coil developed by Daniel Ruhmkorf.                                                                                                                                Why should we care about Geissler?  To begin with he was a journeyman glass worker of great accomplishment.  Geissler was born in the Saxe-Meiningen region of Germany in 1814 and was educated as a glass blower.  His father had been a maker of glass beads and his grandfather on his mother’s side had been a glassmaker. In his early years he traveled from city to city practicing his trade, finally settling in Bonn in 1852 where he gained a reputation not only as an excellent glass-blower, a designer and fabricator of scientific apparatus but also as a distinguished practical physicist. 

            In the early 1850’s, working with Julius Plucker and using glass apparatus that he invented, Geissler ascertained the temperature of water at its maximum density and later the coefficient of expansion for ice and for water freezing.  Geissler also invented a mercury vacuum pump, a vaporimeter for measuring the alcoholic strength of wine, balances, a normal thermometer and an areometer.  However it is for his invention of the sealed glass tubes filled with rarefied gases which to this day bear his name that Geissler is best remembered.  In 1858, Plucker using what he called “Geissler’s tubes” was able to study what was then a new and fascinating phenomena, the stripes in the discharge light of ionized gases.  

            While further developments in electrical discharge through low pressure gas by such scientists as Sir William Crookes,  Jean Perrin,  Heinrich Hertz, J.J. Thompson and other nineteenth and early twentieth century physicists would lead us directly to nuclear and particle physics, Geissler takes us in another direction.  Working with the sense of awe inspired by observing even the most common forms of luminous phenomena such as fire or lightning, Geissler makes his tubes so small as to contain some of that magic and produce colors not seen before in shapes that are humorous, fanciful, whimsical.  Crookes and Company, with their Big Science approach, gave us the x-ray and the atom bomb; Geissler gave us Vegas.  Using the air that we breathe, vapors of common substances such as alcohol and iodine, and minerals dug from our earth, Geissler contrived a palate that was as other-worldly to the eyes of his mid-nineteenth century audience as the music of Benjamin Franklin’s Glass Harmonica had been to the ears of his audience a century before. 

            Geissler played with his work, and his interests were as much aesthetic as they were scientific.  His success with those first gas discharge tubes spawned an industry of imitators the most notable being the factory started by Rudolf Pressler in 1903.  A catalog (c. 1914) from Otto Pressler in Leipzig offered over a hundred different “Geissler tubes” for sale.  While many are not as ambitious as some of Geissler’s own work found in the British Science Museum in London, these imitations are similar to his in design complexity and playfulness.  Geissler’s activity was held back from further development by the limitations inherent in his storage-battery powered induction coil, his use of non-durable thin platinum wire electrodes (which would sputter away quickly as the tubes were used), and the lack of a source of stable inert gases.  As late as 1890 (32 years after their first appearance and 11 years after Edison’s invention of the incandescent lamp), Geissler’s tubes are described as “beautiful electric toys,” in the influential book Electricity in Daily Life.

            With the development of central electrical generating stations and the electrical grid, the next phase in “neon” as we know it came in 1896 with Daniel MacFarlan Moore, a General Electric Company employee, and his carbon dioxide Moore tubes.  Moore’s ingenious scheme used continuous tubes, up to 200 feet long, 1 3/4” in diameter and filled with carbon dioxide which, when ionized by a high voltage current, provided a usable and pleasing white light.  These tubes using carbon electrodes were fitted on site by glassblowers working with six and eight foot sections.  To compensate for the lost of gas as the tubes “burned.” Moore designed an electromechanical system that would allow more carbon dioxide to enter the tube as the resistance of the tube increased.  An electromechanical gas-discharge system using carbon electrodes was undoubtedly not very reliable, and reportedly, in addition to the high initial costs, there were also difficulties with the repair of such systems.  The importance of Moore’s vision cannot be underestimated.  Where Geissler worked in a pocket-sized scale, Moore’s lamps (imagine a 200 foot continuous tube!) were designed from the beginning for architectural purposes.  Unlike the mercury vapor light (the forerunner of our fluorescent lamps) invented by his contemporaryP. Cooper Hewitt,  Moore was not designing his gas-discharge tubing as a light fixtures but instead as a lighting system as integral to a building as the plumbing or the windows.  Without Moore’s vision, Vegas would not have been possible.

            The discovery of neon in 1898 by Ramsay and Travers greatly accelerated the development of gas-discharge tubing.  After Ramsay discovered neon, he realized the process for isolating neon and the other inert gases from air was so expensive as to make their commercial use unfeasible.  Ramsay then contacted the distinguished French scientist and inventor, Professor Georges Claude, about developing “his” gas.  At that time Claude was working on a way of isolating oxygen for medical and welding applications.   Moore also encouraged Claude in the development of neon gas.  Simultaneously in 1907, Claude and the German Karl von Linde invented methods to generate liquid air in sufficient qualities to have the rare gases for luminous tube production as a by-product of oxygen production.  Because of his association with Moore, Claude experimented with a Moore tube filled with neon and immediately saw the potential in that bright orange-red light. 

            The last major stumbling block to the commercial application of gas discharge tubing was the lack of a durable electrode.  Here again Claude invented the necessary next step.  The U.S. patent for Claude’s electrode was granted in 1915, stating that it had been invented in 1910.  Around this time the earliest commercial lighting and sign age uses of neon tubing occurred.  World War I put a halt to the further development of the medium.

            After the war neon advertising was ready to blossom.  The celebrated Packard automobile dealership neon sign on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco in 1922 was the first such sign in the United States.  Many other neon signs followed that one, first in the big cities and then across the country.  The early years of commercial neon were wild ones filled with patent fights, experimentation, and the constant development of materials and techniques.  Signs from that era were simpler than later ones over the next forty years both in terms of color palate and complexity of design.  However, two things from Geissler’s work would remain constant from those first neon signs to those of today: a delight in the use of glowing contoured lines and a sense of humour.  Just as early Geissler tubes had used such odd images such as a vase or flowers, the first neon signs used images with a sense of playfulness.  The curliques in Geissler’s work are to this day reflected in curvilinear decorative neon borders.

            Despite the tremendous differences in scale, Geissler’s influence in Vegas is clearly evident.  Instead of looking at an induction coil powered tube so small that you could easily hold it your hand, we see huge glowing walls of neon many stories high driven by the output of Hoover Dam.  Yet, the fascination that propelled Geissler to invent and develop his “beautiful electric toys” has, over the years, propelled the casino owners, Las Vegas designers and sign fabricators to build those remarkable displays of gas-discharge electric lights.  Now Geissler’s lovely curliques have grown from the simple contoured neon widow borders of “Main Street” to awesome moving walls of color,some over 200 feet high, formed by hundreds of individual neon tubes.  Curiously, these individual tubes which are hand crafted one bend or one weld at a time by traditionally trained neon glassblowers (referred to in the trade as “tubebenders”) retain their human scale.  A neon tube rarely has an overall (one dimension) length of over eight feet, and an overall length over ten feet is almost unheard of.  Such a tube might only weigh two pounds.

            In contrast to its commercial application, artists working in neon make some repayment of the cultural debt we all owe to Geissler for his invention.  Artists (not including those first artists whose work directly copies that of Geissler) have been working in neon since at the least the early 1920s.  In 1923 that Sonja Delaunay--artist, fabric designer, and wife of the famous cubist painter Robert Delaunay--made her “Zig-Zag” neon display applying paint directly to the tubing.  Since the late 1950s artists such as Chryssa, Larry Rivers, Bruce Nauman, and Lili Lakich have made neon sculptures that use neon in a very graphic way mimicking neon signs.  These artists usually have glassblowers who actually make the tubing for them.  Other artists such as Larry Albright, Brian Coleman, Kim Koga and David Svenson work directly with the medium, sculpting their own tubes like Geissler did. 

              Having been trained as neon tubebender and serving a two year apprenticeship in a neon shop in Long Beach in the early seventies, I now find that my own artwork resolutely draws from both traditions.  One time I’ll use neon graphically in the style of neon signs with all its commercial associations; and the next time I’ll work with the tubing sculpturally enjoying the delight found in experimentation and play.  I firmly believe that my own work is most successful on those rare occasions where my use of neon to explore social and cultural issues is combined with my sculptural play such as my ongoing installation piece “Bill’s Bottle Shop” and my recent “Tannenbaum” ( a neon Christmas tree decorated with “Geissler tubes.”)   In my personal history I’ve gone from Vegas to Geissler.  I was completely enthralled with neon--BIG VEGAS NEON--on my first visitto Las Vegas in 1966 shortly after my family moved to Los Angeles.  Now I can barely stand, as one designer calls it,  this "city without foreplay."  The vast scale of the neon displays found there are unsettling--How many miles of neon is that??  I have grown to appreciate beauty and subtlety of Geissler’s intimate scale.


            One can only wonder what Geissler would think of his great-grandchildren--we artists, designers, sign fabricators, and tubebenders who make neon today almost 140 years after he saw those first luminous tubes glow in the dark.  History can fairly judge Geissler as the man whose invention lead to many uses not the least of which are aesthetic.  As Raymond Chandler would say, “There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.”


--Bill Concannon  

Crockett, California June, 1995--revised December 1999

            early versions of this article appeared inProceedings: The Fortieth Symposium on the Art of Scientific Glassblowing , The American Scientific Glassblowers Society, 1995 and in Signs of the Times May 1998





            Breaking Traditions: Contemporary Artists Who Use Glass  (exhibition catalog), University of California at Berkeley Museum at Blackhawk, Danville, CA, 1994.

            Christie’s London, The Pressler Collection, London, 1998.

            Davis, Paul R. “Neon Founders Chronicled in ST,”  Signs Of The Times Magazine, June, 1994.

            Dictionary of Scientific Biography

            Di Lemme, Phillip Luminous Advertising Sketches, 1935.

            Electricity In Daily Life, anthology, Charles Scribners Sons, New York, 1890.

            Encyclopedia Britannica, Ninth Edition, London, 1889.

            Everett Electricity, Deschanel’s Natural Philosophy Part III, Blackie and Son, London, 1901.

            Hawkins Electrical Guide Number Eight, Theo. Audel & Co., New York, 1917.

            Hillier, Bevis The World Of Art Deco,  E.P. Dutton, New York, 1971.

            Miller, A. Luminous Tube Lighting, Chemical Publishing Company, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1946.

            Pressler, Otto Elektrische Vakuum-Rohren (trade catalog), Leipzig, 1914.

            Stern, Rudi Let There Be Neon, Abrams, New York, 1979.

            Thompson, SilvanusElementary Lessons In Electricity And Magnetism, Macmillian & Co., London, 1885.

            White, Harvey E. Classical And Modern Physics, D. Van Norstrand Co., New York, 1940.