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.”
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
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