A History of Neon Light

There is something undeniably alluring about the way neon light enchants, entices and draws you into whatever they’re displaying. It is a magically noir feeling to strolling down street side at night with the colorful glow of neon signs casting such a strong mood over something as mundane as walking. Despite how common these signs are, I’ve never really thought about how they function, what they mean as an art form, and how they can be used beyond a sign that reads “OPEN!”.

To start, neon lighting is created by heating and bending glass tubes and then trapping rarified neon (meaning lower-than-normal density) inside these tubes. Typically, they are adhered to a frame or fixture with wiring that leads to an on/off switch that plugs in with a grounded outlet. In fact, it is actually very similar to the way plasma televisions operated in the early 2000’s, only these TVs operated on a smaller scale for each individual pixel. Other gasses and chemical compounds are often used to achieve desired colors, for example, where neon itself typically produces an orange color, adding mercury will give the it a blue glow.

Image courtesy of Asildastore.com

Neon was initially discovered in 1898 but wouldn’t be used for tube lighting until 1910 when it was introduced by French engineer Georges Claude (often referred to as the “Edison of France”) at the Paris Motor Show that December. Thirty years on, nearly every major U.S. city would include neon signage in it’s downtown area.

Let’s take a look at some of the various ways in which neon lighting has been used since it’s inception. Below we have one of the most famous examples of neon signage, the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. While it does use incandescent lighting for much of the sign, the word “welcome” on the top as well as the flashing star above is composed of neon. The sign was initially designed by visual artist Betty Willis in 1959 and is owned and maintained by YESCO, a signage manufacturing company based out of Salt Lake City.

Betty Willis, Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign, 1959

Moving more into the avant-garde side of neon, Mary Weatherford is a Los Angeles based artists that produces fantastically appealing abstract paintings that often incorporate this unique lighting. Her works are typically large canvases covered in massive and colorful brushstrokes with neon tubes compositionally affixed to the canvas. Weatherford prefers to leave all the electrical components exposed, because, according to her, “If the wires ran behind the painting, you’d have a beer sign, not a painting. Nothing is hidden.”

Mary Weatherford, Blue Cut Fire, 2017

Another artist whose neon work I adore is Jung Lee. She is a Korean artist who is based out of Seoul. Her primary focus revolves around photography of neon installations in naturally stark environments. Typically these neon signs will make up some sort of sentimental phrase or word, with the barren background adding to their effect. However, my favorites by her would have to be her Day and Night series, particularly Day and Night #7. These pieces jumble together impactful phrases or words into a nearly indiscernible mess of neon colors and text, creating a feeling of melancholy in me… almost as though I’m circling the drain while reflecting on what is important in life. It’s a tough feeling to describe.

Jung Lee, Day and Night #7, 2012

Neon signage sort of acts as an homage to an era where semiotics, business, and art all relied on one another separately from mass production or digital advertisements. It is becoming increasingly rare that there is a custom human touch to the manufacturing of signs after the industrialization of the fabrication trade, however neon bounced back in the 80’s after falling out of favor in post-WWII America, which means it is always possible we will see a resurgence of artisan lighting in the future!

Source 1, Source 2, Featured image is detail from photograph of The Moulin Rouge cabaret in Paris taken by BENOIT TESSIER of REUTERS.

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