Finding the Neon Light, Part Three - The Father of Neon
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Finding the Neon Light, Part Three - The Father of Neon

Inspired in part by Daniel McFarlan Moore's invention, Moore’s Lamp, Paris born chemist and inventor, Georges Claude (1870 - 1960) discovered that passing an electric current through inert gases made them light very brightly.

By Randall L. Caba

He experimented and pursued perfecting the luminous tube using inert gas fill instead of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. It was he who gave birth to the modern day neon tube. And its ubiquity was solidified when his efforts culminated in developing the world’s first long-lived electrode.

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  • Claude’s first public display was two 38-foot long tubes at the Paris Expo in December 1910. This was the same year that the Boy Scouts of America was incorporated, Zane Grey achieved fame, Edward Stratemeyer began his Tom Swift series, the electric washing machine was introduced and the Women's Suffrage Movement was in full swing. Claude applied for a patent for neon signs in 1911, the year the Titanic sank.

    The First Sign

    Jaques Fonseque, Claude’s associate, sold the first commercial sign in 1912 to a Paris barber. Then in 1913, 3½ foot tall letters were installed on the Champs-Elysees that spelled out “CINZANO.” I assume this sign was manufactured for the famous Cinzano Company, manufacturer of Italian products that even today include world famous vermouths, a range of aperitifs and high quality sparkling wines.

    By 1915, Claude had patented his process in the U.S. and began to sell patent licenses worldwide. Then in 1919, he decorated the entrance to the beautiful, world-renowned Pairs Opera House with red and blue tubes. The colors became known as “Opera Colors.”

    In 1922, neon tubes entered Holland carefully hauled via casket by the Haaxman brothers. Then in 1923, the first neon sign was installed in the U.S. in the city of Los Angeles. A Packard car dealer, Earle C. Anthony, imported from Paris, two “Packard” signs for which he paid $24,000.

    Now, Earle C. Anthony was more than just a car dealer. He built by hand his first electric automobile at the age of seventeen. Then he and his father formulated the automobile “filling station” and fabricated the Chevron logo that later they sold to Standard Oil. Mister Anthony also started KFI radio station, inspired the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, and started a little business that would grow to be the Greyhound Corporation.

    Eventually, Packard Motors became The Packard Electric Company and manufactured arc lamps and incandescent bulbs among other electrical products. In 1911, they lit with incandescent bulbs Warren, Ohio where the first Packard automobile was built in 1899. It was the first U.S. city to light its streets with electric bulbs. Today, Delphi Packard Electric Systems, a division of General Motors Corporation develops automotive power and signal distribution systems.

    By 1924, “Claude Neon Lights, Inc” franchises emerged in several U.S. cities. And in 1926, the first neon signs were turned on at Hibiya Park in Tokyo, Japan. Georges Claude now became known as “Claude Neon” and his invention had truly lit the globe.

    But Georges Claude was first a man of science and neon was not his only interest. In the July 12, 1930, issue of SCIENCE NEWS, “Claude Still Seeks Ocean Power,” tells the tale of Claude’s efforts in the Gulf Stream at Matanzas, Cuba to derive electrical power from the sea.

    He surmised that his unique power plant could derive electricity from the ocean water temperature differences at the floor and surface. At the time of that writing, he had two mishaps that caused the loss of 6000 feet of tubing needed to carry out his experiment. Modern studies continue his effort.

    Claude’s Other Efforts

    And in the February 7, 1931 issue of SCIENCE NEWS, “Better Light For Less Power From New Illuminating Unit,” Claude had developed a new illuminating system that used half the electricity of incandescent bulbs. The article stated, “The new lighting unit is the result of refinement of the red, tube like neon electric signs, which have come into wide use during the past few years…” and continued saying that the light used “ordinary house wiring” and “these new low-voltage units are ready for application in the industrial and commercial field and that tubes or lights for general household use will be manufactured soon.”

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    Fluorescent lamps were introduced at the 1937 New York World’s Fair. From the discovery of new elements, to developing a process to manufacture ammonia, inventing neon advertising and lighting, to solving the world’s power woes through oceanic experiments, Mister Claude’s prowess was varied and wide.

    Claude Neon Lights, Inc. in New York City manufactured about 600 out of around 750 neon signs within a few years of entering the US. Within less than twenty years, his neon would replace the incandescent light bulbs of new York City's famed Great White Way. It looked like Claude had a firm foothold in the old U.S. of A. But did he?

    Juxtaposition

    He did not. Apparently, demand for the bright lights lured more than just spectators. And in the 1930’s, Charles J. Wamser, owner of Sheet Metal Products, Inc. created his own electrodes that did not infringe on Claude's patent. Today, his neon sign mass-production company is known all over the world as Everbrite, Inc.

    The neon industry in large derived from patent infringements against Claude Neon. Motivated to harbor their improper business, these patent violator’s spying, distrust and apprehension permeated the trade as they tried to keep or steal neon secrets. Strangely, much of this fear persists today.

    However, even more unfortunate for Claude, he chose his politics poorly. During World War II, he was supportive of the right wing, French Vichy government and later was imprisoned from 1945 to 1949 as a German collaborator. I couldn’t find out much about his life after that but his invention seemingly outshined his politics. He eventually died May 23, 1960 in Saint Cloud, France.

    The Controversy

    Some say that the first “NEON” sign was lit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, the famous fair celebrating the Centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. It featured “The Palace of Electricity” and some credit Perley G. Nutting with manufacturing the sign. However, I contacted someone knowledgeable about the event and have not been able to confirm the presence of neon at the fair.

    Regardless of who first publicly lit a neon tube or where that tube was shown, Georges Claude popularized neon by inventing the long-lived electrode then patenting and marketing his invention worldwide. History credits him as the father of neon.

    History also shows that Mr. Claude’s dream of lighting the world with neon manufactured by licensed franchises deteriorated rapidly, almost exclusively into neon sign advertising fabricated in hidden backyard shops. But Claude held…

    Persisting Dreams

    Air Liquide, a company which Georges Claude was cofounder with Paul Delorme in 1902, is today a worldwide group that operates in 60 countries and employs more than 30,000 people. Air Liquide’s industrial gases affect our lives daily from the argon in our light bulbs, to nitrogen packaging the keeps our fruit fresh, to products used to bleach paper, produce electronic circuits and more. You can visit this Claude dream at www.airliquide.com.

    Despite the technical hurdles, the legitimate and illegitimate competition, the neon trade remains vital even today. It is an industry established on scientific principles developed over time by many brilliant individuals. Their lifework provided us the foundation on which to build our lives. And now, a great deal of neon’s future literally lies in our hands.

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