The History of Neon Signs & Evolution to LED Neon Signs

Illuminating the streets and adding a colorful glow to cityscapes, neon signs have a storied history that harks back to the serendipitous observations of French astronomer Jean Picard in 1675. From the scientific corridors in Paris to the iconic neon signs of Las Vegas, these radiant beacons have evolved beyond mere advertising tools to become symbols of artistry and nostalgia.

We trace the journey of neon signs – a route marked by discoveries and technological advancements – and we delve into a narrative where neon has morphed from glowing gas-filled glass tubes to the energy-efficient modern LED neon that we now see all around us.

In this article, we will walk you through the golden era of neon signs, their decline, and the subsequent rise of LED alternatives. By exploring modern applications, technological innovations, and the environmental strides made with LED neon, we outline the future of neon signage.

The Discovery & Early History of Neon Lighting

The history of neon signs begins with the discovery of the element Neon – symbol Ne and atomic number 10 – an inert gas that is present within the Earth’s atmosphere. First identified in 1898 by British chemists Sir William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers, neon remained a curiosity – at that time it was an element that had been discovered but they hadn’t yet found a function that it could be used for.

Neon is one of the noble gases and is an abundant element in Earth’s atmosphere.

Ramsay and Travers received a Nobel prize for their discovery of 4 gases – including neon, argon, krypton, and xenon.

Sir William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers
Sir William Ramsay (left) and Morris W. Travers (right)

In the scientific community testing and experimentation on neon gas continued. Neon gas’ journey from a rarefied laboratory specimen to the cornerstone of city streetscapes and widespread use had begun.

In the years after 1898, some of the most notable discoveries were:

  • Electrical Excitement: When an electrical charge was applied to neon gas enclosed in a sealed glass tube (neon tube), it emitted a bright red glow – this discovery captured the attention of engineers and sign makers on how this might be used in a neon lamp.
  • The Paris Effect: In 1910, Georges Claude, a French engineer, presented the first neon lights to the public in Paris. It was met with fascination and soon after, neon lamps became synonymous with modern cities, transforming Paris into the ‘City of Light’.
  • Signage Revolution: Claude’s patent and manufacturing process for neon light paved the way for the medium’s commercialization, with the first neon sign ever sold on display outside a barber shop in Paris in 1912. This was the first advertising sign using neon ever and over the next few years utilizing neon gas signs for commercial shopfront signage quickly became commonplace.
  • From Europe to America: The phenomenon of traditional neon signs crossed the Atlantic, with the first neon signs in a US installation in 1923 – the sign said, “Packard”, as was ordered for the Packard Motor Car Company. This first sign began the expansion in the USA, and it quickly took over US cityscapes.
  • Colorful Expansion: Though initially emitting only a reddish hue, advances in neon tubes filled with different gases or coated with fluorescent powders expanded the neon color palette, enabling vibrant neon light signs in many different colors.

 

The first neon sign in the USA - the "Packard" neon sign circa 1923
The first neon sign in the USA – the “Packard” neon sign circa 1923

 

George Claude - the inventor of the neon lamp
George Claude – the inventor of the neon lamp, circa 1910

 

Traditional neon signs using neon gas in a sealed tube made of glass glow a reddish/orange color
Traditional neon signs using neon gas in a sealed tube made of glass glow a reddish/orange color

How a Gas Neon Sign is made

After the first neon sign was invented in 1912 and neon signs had landed in the US with the first neon signs in the USA being in 1923, we then saw neon signs catch on like wildfire. Production of neon signs had been refined, and now companies were mass-producing custom neon signs. The glass and gas neon signs of that time were all made by hand – people blowing the glass tubing and then laying out the glass tubing onto wooden or metal backboards, with metal mounting brackets. Then the electrodes were mounted into the glass tubing and the sign was filled with gas. This is identical to incandescent bulbs – electrical current reacting with the gas inside the glass bulb.

The Golden Age of Neon Signs

We can’t explore the history of neon signs without now visiting the Golden Age of neon signs – a period spanning from the 1920s to the 1960s.

This era witnessed gas neon signs in their heyday, where every main street seemed to be bathed in the soft yet striking glow of neon light. Big and small businesses throughout the USA clamored to have their names etched in luminous neon, making it the quintessence of outdoor advertising for shopfronts. Despite being quite costly neon signs became ingrained in the visual urban culture of the time.

The landscape was evolving:

  • We saw the evolution from the singular neon glow to a mesmerizing spectrum of colors; thanks to the development of fluorescent and phosphor coatings for the glass tubes, neon sign makers were able to offer a more diverse and vivid neon color palette.
  • In tandem with the growth of cities and the boom in roadside businesses, custom neon signs came to the fore, rendering each establishment distinct and easily recognizable even from a distance.

This period served as undeniable evidence that a traditional neon sign was not just a means to gain customer attention but a staple in setting the atmosphere of a whole city and defining an age.

The Decline of Traditional Neon Signs

The first hurdle that was presented to neon signs’ ever-expanding growth was World War II, which was between 1939 and 1945. World War II meant most human production efforts and raw materials were being funneled toward war machine production. It made for more businesses’ belt-tightening and a lower need for traditional gas neon signage. Having said that neon signs prevailed, and with no alternative, it was just a matter of time before the economy reverted and started to grow again – and the need for neon signs was booming again.

The mid-1960s to early 1970s proved a pivotal moment in the history of neon signs – their luster began to dim with the emergence of newer technologies, LED lights were invented in 1962, and mass-produced LED light bulbs in 1968. This heralded a new age in advertising displays.

After the invention of LED lighting, it was just a matter of time before gas and glass neon lighting would be overtaken and maybe even totally replaced.

Modern Manufacturing of Old Traditional Neon Signs

Whilst LED lights were set to replace neon signs, the traditional neon signs still had a huge following and had the charm that many sought. Even today, as the World is bathed in LED light, there are companies who specialize in making those traditional glass tube and gas-filled neon signs.

Traditional neon signs are still appreciated in the USA, and some of the main reasons:

  • Collectible: The undiminished demand for vintage neon signs, where rarity and historical significance amplify their value as collector’s items.
  • Historical: Several gas neon signs adorn buildings or businesses, and have historical value, for these reasons, they are maintained and replaced with the same technology when needed.
  • Artistic: Many artists love the raw magnetic appeal of the glass, the gas, and the metal work of a gas neon sign, and therefore these have formed a unique neon artwork following.
  • Nostalgia: Some people hold a nostalgia for those old neon signs, and continue to want to collect these kinds of signs.

For these reasons, it is likely that gas neon signs may never completely disappear from circulation.

Evolution of Neon Sign Technology – LED Neon Light Signs

In 1962 LED lights were invented, and by 1968 Monsanto was mass-producing LED light bulbs (LED stands for light emitting diode). Whilst LED lighting was in its infancy even at this early point in time LED lights still had advantages over their prior technology. LEDs were longer lasting, less fragile, and more energy efficient.

Since that time LEDS have continued to evolve, and nowadays, in terms of signage, we have LED neon flex – which is a string of smaller LED lights chained into a plastic tubing.

LED neon sign being made in our factory
LED neon sign being made in our factory

The main reasons LED neon flex has caught on:

  • Efficient: A prime advantage of LED neon flex is that it is energy efficient. LED light signs consume significantly less power than traditional gas-neon signs. LED neon is eco-friendly.
  • Colors: The leap in LED technology has allowed for a burst of creativity in the color spectrum. LED lights are available in 21 different bright colors, and can be dimmed, making for hundreds of hues and combinations.
  • Longevity: LED neon flex lights are longer lasting and offer 30,000 to 70,000 hours of light hours, or 12-20 years in practical usage terms.
  • Customization: LED neon flex can be chained together, and made smaller, making them easier to produce custom neon signs. Being much cheaper and faster to design with LED neon flex makes for easier production of signage.
  • Control: LED lights have far greater control mechanisms, allowing for multiple colors, changing or programmable settings

An Example of a Dynamic Neon sign (multi-color LED neon flex with dynamic neon, programmable sign)

LED Neon Flex Signs – Beyond Business – At Home & Events

The use of LED neon flex was significant for business signage, and to this day continues to improve and evolve.

Today’s applications for LED neon flex, go far beyond commercial use – with the advent of this cheaper technology which is now safer to use indoors (unlike gas and glass tube neon signs), it has opened up LED neon signs for use as indoor decor. LED neon signs are often used as decor in homes, or at events (like weddings) – adding warmth, vibrancy, lighting, and an improved mood setting.

With today’s technological advancements and the safety and lighting profile that LED neon signs offer, it’s no surprise that they have been harnessed for broader lighting purposes.

Examples of Home Decor neon signs

Conclusion

This article has been a deep timeline of neon signs, through to their modern faux alternative, LED neon signs.

Reflecting on the history of neon signs, it’s striking to consider their humble beginnings in the early 1900s to the commanding presence they once held over bustling city streets and popular culture.

Even with the advanced technology present through advanced electronics, chips, and computing technologies there still exists a thriving, albeit small, industry for those traditional timeless gas neon signs of yesteryear.

Today, as we stand at the crossroads of heritage and progress, the evolution of neon signs to LED neon signs represents a conscious stride towards a greener, more sustainable future without compromising on the vintage feel, or look that neon gas signs offered.

LED neon signs offer a harmonious blend of past and present, imbuing spaces with a distinct neon charm, quieter operation, and significantly lower energy costs.

If you want some expert advice on how to build an LED neon sign for your business, home, or event, please contact our customer service team today!

FAQs

What are the manufacturing differences between LED neon signs and gas neon signs?

  • Traditional neon signs: Crafted with a blown glass sealed tube containing neon gas.
  • LED neon signs: Utilize acrylic tubes packed with LEDs (light-emitting diodes are chips located on a reflective surface).
  • LED neon signs are energy-efficient, and versatility, and offer dynamic features like color changes and dimming effects, making custom neon signs more adaptable to specific design needs.

How do LED neon signs work?

  • LED neon signs produce light when electrons travel through a semiconductor, resulting in a luminous display that enhances everything from business neon signs to neon signs for the bedroom.

What are the lights used in LED neon signs and gas neon signs?

How much power do LED neon signs use when compared to traditional gas neon signs?

  • The stark contrast in power consumption – LED neon signs only utilize 10% of the energy of traditional signs.
  • Operational savings are evident, reducing running costs by approximately 20%.

How eco-friendly are LED neon signs compared to traditional gas neon signs?

  • LED technology steps beyond the health concerns of traditional neon signs by avoiding harmful gases and mercury.
  • This switch aligns with our eco-conscious ethos, emphasizing the environmental benefits of reduced power usage.

How many colors do LED neon signs have compared to traditional gas neon signs?

  • The spectrum of effects is accessible with LED neon – from strobing to color transitions.
  • The design precision ensures brand logos or motifs are accurately represented.
  • Both LED and traditional neon can extend their charm to any location, indoor or outdoor.

What is the life expectancy of an LED neon sign vs a traditional gas neon sign?

  • An impressive lifespan sets LED neon apart; they shine for about 30,000 hours compared to traditional neon’s 10,000-hour life.

What are the main considerations when buying a traditional gas neon sign?

  • When selecting a neon sign, consider visibility, durability, energy efficiency, and how the design contributes to brand identity.

Do LED neon signs or gas neon signs offer the most customization?

  • LED neon offers a broad color-changing palette.
  • The technology leads in energy efficiency and operational cost savings, accentuating spaces from neon signs for bars to enchanting neon light-up signs for events.

What are the maintenance differences between LED neon signs and gas neon signs?

  • The resilience and longevity of LED neon means less frequent maintenance.
  • This robustness makes LED neon signs a sound investment for any space.

What are the cost differences between LED neon signs and traditional gas neon signs?

  • LED neon signs come at a fraction of the cost – often 1/3 or 1/2 of what traditional neon signs would require, courtesy of streamlined manufacturing.

Where and when were neon signs first used?

  • In 1912 a barber shop in Paris, Frane was the first place to show the practical use of a neon sign.

When and where were neon signs first used in the USA?

  • In 1923 Earle C Anthony bought and used 2 neon signs reading ‘Packard’, which were used at Packard Motor Car Company.
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Author

Christopher is our main author, with over 10 years working with businesses and consulting online.  Christopher has a deep understanding of LED lights, LED neon flex, neon signs and how they can be best used to help business, home and event decor.

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