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Neon Lighting

December 23, 2003

A public radio commentary

As a gift my wife gave me a neon sign. It sits in our dining room and flashes "open" when we have a party. It's garish, of course, but that's part of its appeal - in fact, it captures some essence of Americana. Yet in the early 1900s Neon signs were the height of elegance and refinement because they came from France, the undisputed arbiter of taste.

Around the turn of the 19th century, a Frenchman, Georges Claude, searched for a way to recover oxygen from air. What really ignited demand was an arms race: The steel industries of Europe needed tons of pure oxygen to create extremely strong steel for armaments. By freezing air, Claude was able to extract pure oxygen, but since air is more than just oxygen he also recovered a rare gas called neon.

Neon gas was so expensive that, prior to Claude's work, it was used only for exotic things. For example, in 1897 a special light display was made using neon and other rare gases to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The glow inside these neon lights was a kind of tamed lightening. The gas in the tube is made of millions of molecules, which in turn are composed of positive and negative charges. Electricity is used to pull these charges apart and, of course, these opposites attract. When they smash into each other they produce a brilliant light. For air this gives off a white or yellow color, the color of lightning; for neon an intense, clear red is produced.

So, in making his oxygen Claude also produced tons of neon as a by-product. Previously this was rare and expensive, but with his new supply of gas he could make neon lighting available cheaply. By 1910 Parisians were able to see this beautiful soft, red light illuminating several buildings. In 1912 the world's first neon advertising sign debuted at a small Paris barber shop. A year later a spectacular sign lit up the Paris sky with 3 1/2 foot white letters CINZANO.

Neon moved to the United States when a Los Angeles auto dealer visited France and ordered two identical blue-bordered signs with the single word "PACKARD" in orange neon letters. One sign is still functioning, having outlived the Packard car.

Georges Claude made a fortune from his neon signs, but lost most of it in the 1930s with hair brained schemes to make electricity using the temperature difference between the top of the ocean and its icy depths. He almost ended his career imprisoned for life.

Upset that the French government had not recognized his technical work well enough, he became a Nazi collaborator in World War II. Although sentenced to life imprisonment, he was paroled when France's leading scientists made a plea. He lived quietly, working on another daft plan to get power, this time by drilling holes in the ground to reach hot water. He died in 1960 at aged 89.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises