Finding the Neon Light, Part Two: The Insights - The Online Magazine for the Sign Trade.
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Finding the Neon Light, Part Two: The Insights

We continue illuminating neon’s rise from historical darkness with the second article in this series of three. This one attests the observations and endeavors of other’s helped to build the products, tools and materials used in our trade today.

By Randall L. Caba

But keep in mind that science is a collective endeavor and discoveries most often are credited to the chief scientist rather than to research subordinates who possibly made the first find. Though great they were, these discoverers were supported by the annals of many.

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  • Glass

    Soda-lime glass is very old and dates back to Mesopotamia, likely around 3000 BC. Made of silica and soda lime, it is categorized a hard glass. Evidence of glass blowing shows around the end of the first century BC, the Christian era. Today, soda glass is used to manufacture glass bottles and windows, and Classic Glass neon tubes.

    However in the United States, lead glass is the most commonly used to manufacture tubes for neon. It was invented and patented by British chemist, George Ravenscroft (1618-81) - some say Ravencroft - in 1676. He was seeking a glass better suited to art ware than the Venetian soda glass that had dominated markets since 1291.

    By changing the composition of soda glass, adding lead oxide to the melt, he gave us “lead-alkali” or “lead crystal” glass, a sparkling, soft glass that melts at lower temperature and remains pliable longer than soda glass. Besides its use in decorative art ware, it also made possible high-quality microscope and telescope lenses.


    Around 1603, a shoemaker named, Vincenzo Casciorolo from the town of Bologna, Italy discovered a stone that glowed when added to hot coals. Called the “Bologna Stone” or “Sun Stone” its main constituent was the phosphorous substance barium sulfide.

    But it was Sir George Gabriel Stokes (1819-1903), British mathematician and physicist who in 1852, discovered modern phosphor possibilities. He was a renowned scientist of many fields but his work in the mathematical theory of light; the nature of fluorescence and the field of spectrum analysis that affected the neon trade, as we now know it.

    Stokes defined fluorescence as the result of a material’s absorption of ultraviolet light and the resulting emission of another color of light. He explained the emission is based on the “vibrations of illuminated molecules.” Following his explanation, we use Argon with Mercury to produce ultraviolet light within a phosphor-coated tube. The subsequent emission of light produces a wide assortment of colors depending on the applied phosphor coating.

    Fuel and Burner

    Natural gas is also called methane. It’s similar to a noble gas in at least two characteristics; it’s colorless and odorless. But that’s where the similarities end because it is very different in that it reacts to elements like oxygen and heat to produce flame. Methane is most often found in ground deposits with oil. In the United States, it was recognized early with the Indians and even used to illuminate New York in the early 1800s.

    Propane was developed in the very early 1900s when consumers complained that liquid gasoline evaporated too quickly because storage containers were inefficient. So, Doctor Walter Snelling, a chemist, looked into the matter and discovered that the evaporating gases were propane, butane and other compounds. He also discovered that 270 gallons of propane gas could be stored indefinitely in liquid form under moderate pressure inside a 1-gallon tank.

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    Within a few years, LP-gas, liquid petroleum, was in use in cooking stoves and eventually automobiles and torches. Today, propane is an 8 billion dollar a year industry serving residential, automobile, chemical, agricultural and other industries. Of course, without natural gas or propane, we in the neon trade would likely use another less clean burning, less efficient fuel to operate our burners.

    And speaking of burners, it was German chemist, Robert Bunsen (1811-1899) who is credited with building the first gas burner, the “Bunsen Burner.” But it was his laboratory assistant, Peter Desdega, who first built it, likely from British chemist and physicist Michael Faraday’s (1791-1867) early designs. In fact, it is Faraday’s work on electromagnetic induction that gave us the electric motor and the electric generator that power our equipment.

    The Light

    Some say, the first lit tube arose in 1675 when a French astronomer named Jean Picard shook a glass tube partially filled with mercury. Friction between the glass wall and the mercury caused static electricity to induce a mercury vapor glow.

    However, the experiment is most often credited to Francis Hawksbee (1687­1763), English scientist and lecturer when in 1709 he shook a vacuumed capillary tube partially filled with liquid mercury and witnessed the glow. Hawksbee also published papers that included a design for an air pump that with only minor modifications was still in use some two hundred years later.

    You can recreate Francis Hawksbee’s experiment with a spent mercury trap that remains under vacuum and contains a small ball of mercury. Shake it hard in a dark room to see a familiar colored, dim glow. Use “dirty” mercury to aid friction, produce more static charge, and thus more glow.

    In 1744, Johann Heinrich Winkler (1703-1770) went into history by using heat to bend a glass tube into shapes then a word. By the mid 1800s, German master glassblower, Heinrich Geissler (1815-1879), used high voltage and alternating current on evacuated tubes partially filled with gases and vapors to produce light. Then around 1890, Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) used phosphor coated Geissler tubes to light the word “Light.”

    But Geissler also contributed the first mercury vacuum pump design in 1855. Then in the mid-1860s, Heinrich Sprengel, improved Geissler's design and a few years later, Sir William Crookes (1832-1919) produced vacuum that exceeded 1/1,000,000 of an atmosphere. His work with vacuum discharge tubes became synonymous with his name; Crookes tubes, around 1878.

    Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) constructed the first Arc Lamp in 1807. He used a battery and two charcoal sticks to create light. In the late 1870s, Paris used a Russian engineer’s version of the arc lamp called The Yablockhkov candle to light its streets. Wabash, Indiana is credited as the first U.S. City to be lit using electric light. In 1880, four Arc lamps hung over the courthouse and dazzled town members.

    But it was the “Moore Lamp” that dominated the luminous tube scene from 1893 to after 1910. Daniel McFarlan Moore, inventor of the lamp, began working under Thomas Edison (1847 - 1931) but quickly went into business for himself. When Thomas Edison asked, "What's wrong with my lamp?" Moore is quoted as replying "It's too small, too hot, and too red."

    Moore’s first commercial application was installed at a Newark, New Jersey hardware store. The tubes were over two inches in diameter and nearly eight feet long. Filled with carbon dioxide and nitrogen, impurities in the tubes incited reactions that corroded the electrodes causing the tubes to promptly burn out.

    Still, Moore’s Lamp produced bright white light at triple that of the light bulb. And though difficult to install, Moore Lamps often were chosen to replace Edison’s spin-off, the light bulb illuminated sign. That was until the luminous neon tube arrived. Read about its discovery in our final article on finding the neon light, The Father.

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