Finding the Neon Light, Part One ­ The Elements
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Finding the Neon Light, Part One ­ The Elements

Consider this series of articles “how-you” more so than “how-to.” Because hopefully they will help uncover how you fit into neon’s rise from the depths of historical darkness, from the ocean of time past to the bright neon wave of the present.

By Randall Caba
Reprinted with permission from Sign Builder Illustrated

From sources on the Internet, to books and encyclopedias I sought to discover neon’s origins, its lucent timeline. Though several sources held discrepancies, mostly in when or how, but sometimes even whom, the following is a synopsis of that expedition.

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  • In no way is this series complete. As many unaccredited scientists’ earlier or parallel work contributed to each ascribed discoverer’s breakthrough. And several of their other historic accomplishments go unmentioned. It is not presented entirely chronological either rather ordered by categories: The Elements, The Insights and The Father.

    Neon (Ne)

    The word “Neon” stems from the Greek word “neos” meaning “new.” It is an inert, odorless gas found in the atmosphere and within rocks making up the Earth’s crust. We process on average 88,000 pounds of liquid air to yield about 1 pound of Neon; hence its qualification as a rare gas. Of all the rare gases, its light is the most intense at common electrical voltages and currents, and is the most recognized by name.

    We know it is used in advertising to make brilliant red-orange Neon signs. But it’s also used to make several kinds of lasers, as a refrigerant in cooling systems, and in television cathode ray tubes. Two European chemists, Sir William Ramsay (1852-1916) and Morris W. Travers (1872-1961) first discovered Neon gas in 1898. The same year pharmacist Caleb Bradham invented “Pepsi Cola” and the year of the Spanish-American War.

    Sir William Ramsay was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1851 and became a renowned archeologist and academician. His life-long passion was the study of Asia and its influence on Greek civilization though he contributed much to early Christian history too. He was knighted in 1906 and bestowed several honorary fellowships and degrees. He won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1904, for his work leading to the discovery of the inert gases Neon, Argon, Krypton and Xenon.

    Though he led a long life, little record of Neon gas’ cofounder, Morris Travers appears to exist. However, he was Director of The Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India from 1909 to 1914. His friend and Neon co-discoverer, Sir William Ramsay, helped establish the Institution, a long held dream of its founder Jamsetji Tata.

    Helium (He)

    Travers and Ramsay also extracted from liquid air, the noble gases Helium, Krypton, and Xenon; the process of extraction is called fractional distillation. Helium stems from the Greek word “helios” meaning “the sun.”

    The French astronomer, Pierre Janssen (1824-1907) first discovered evidence of Helium in 1868, during a solar eclipse that he witnessed in India. He forwarded his spectral findings to English astronomer Joseph Lockyer (1836-1920) who concluded that his discovery was a new element not of Earth. Later however, Sir William Ramsay discovered Helium on Earth in a mineral of uranium.

    Only Hydrogen is more abundant in the universe than Helium. It’s mostly found in deposits of natural gas from the Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Utah regions. Much of our underground reserves of Helium were lost while extracting natural gas until 1980 when scientists finally convinced the U.S. government to stockpile it.

    Because of its excellent refrigerant qualities, Helium is used in cryogenic and super conductivity research. It is used in arc welding, for cooling nuclear reactors and rocket boosters, in the medical industry, in diving equipment, and in weather and research balloons. But most of us recognize the gaseous element in children’s floating, Helium-filled balloons. It lights orange white in an electrically charged vacuum tube.

    Argon (Ar)

    Argon comes from the Greek word “argos” meaning “inactive.” Like all noble or rare gases, it too is colorless, odorless, tasteless and nontoxic. Sir William Ramsay and physicist Lord Rayleigh (1842-1919) discovered Argon in Scotland in 1894.

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    Lord Rayleigh was born of higher nobility in November 1842 and named John William Strutt. Ill most of his youth, he nevertheless heartily pursued his interests in science. After his father died leaving him Baron over a 7000-acre estate, he decided to leave management of the estate to his younger brother so he could devote his life to scientific disciplines.

    It was Lord Rayleigh in 1892 that asked why atmospheric nitrogen appeared heavier than nitrogen found in chemical compounds. Ramsay answered that nitrogen in the atmosphere was likely tainted with undetected gas and they began their work toward the discovery of Argon.

    Lord Rayleigh went on to hold several high offices and positions of academic honor. He wrote hundreds of papers on his scientific studies that included mathematics, optics, vision, gas properties, hydrodynamics, sound and more. He also contributed regularly to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His work discovering Argon earned him a Nobel Prize in 1904 and on both the Moon and Mars craters are named after him. Transcripts of Lord Rayleigh and Sir William Ramsay’s original documents can be found on-line at http://webserver.lemoyne.edu/faculty/giunta/papers.html.

    Currently, Argon is used in manufacturing Low-E (insulated) glass windows, gas welding and in Argon Lasers used to fire beams of blue and green light at music concerts. Argon light is also used to illuminate fingerprints at crime scenes and the gas used in the manufacture of most “blue” or “Mercury” tubes in our neon trade. Isolated, it glows dim lavender when electrically charged.

    Krypton (Kr)

    Krypton stems from the Greek word “kryptos” meaning “hidden.” Ramsay and Travers boiled it away from liquid air in 1898. It only makes up about 1/1,000,000 of the atmosphere qualifying it too as a rare gas. For a time, its spectral line was used as the standard of measure for the metric unit “meter.” Unlike Helium, a Krypton gas-filled balloon sinks to the ground because it is heavier than air.

    Sometimes used in Neon Art, it glows a dim bluish-white or some say, a gray-green color in clear glass tubes. But because of its high cost, its commercial use is somewhat restricted though it is used in some photographic flash bulbs, with either Argon or Neon in the production of incandescent bulbs, and in some types of chemical analysis.

    Xenon (Xe)

    Xenon is the Greek word for “stranger.” Also discovered by Ramsay and Travers in 1898, it too is extracted from liquefied air. It exists in the atmosphere at about one part in twenty million. It too is sometimes used in Neon Art because of its unique blue-white glow. In fact, the auto industry recently introduced Xenon headlights in some new model cars.

    It is also used to make electron tubes, bacterial lamps and high-powered Xenon-discharge lamps. The nuclear and chemical industries make regular use of it too.

    Combined with fluorine, Xenon creates fluoride compounds, used in the Semiconductor Industry and to produce Excimer Lasers. One type of Xenon produced fluoride is said to be used in production of sodium fluoride which is used to prevent tooth decay. And in one of its compound forms, Xenon trioxide, it is highly explosive.

    Mercury (Hg)

    Of course, an investigation into the history of the neon trade would not be complete without a look at the element Mercury. Since Mercury is used to brighten the dim fill-gas Argon to commercially useful levels in “blue tubes.”

    “Liquid silver” or “Quick silver” as it is called, Mercury exists in several forms. The form known to most neon craftsmen is its liquid state, the only metal that exists as a liquid at room temperature. Its history is old and dates far back to the ancient Chinese and Egyptians. Medieval alchemists thought they could turn it into gold.

    Mercury is used in the medical field and when blended with gold and silver, in some dental fillings. Certain types of paint and batteries contain Mercury and it is used in Mercury vapor lamps that line some neighborhood streets.

    English scientist, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) laid the groundwork for the field of Chemistry and is known for his discovery of oxygen after heating a red oxide of Mercury. Without thorough understanding of oxygen, our burners would not operate and without ultra-pure Mercury, our tubes would discolor and stain. Chemistry and Physics are the backbone sciences supporting the neon trade.

    This concludes our look into the history of the elements used in our trade. In Part Two, we’ll research The Insights that ushered lead glass, phosphors and the first lit tube.

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