Neon – a celebration of a craft that illuminated the sign industry – and still does!

Long-standing ISA-UK member, Butterfield Signs in conjunction with ISA-UK, have been looking back into the history of neon signs. Butterfield Signs are one of the oldest neon sign suppliers in the UK that still to this day, supply in house-made neon signs and designs..

Neon tubing has been described as “The living flame” and Butterfield Signs are proud to celebrate that they have been producing Neon tubing for 75 years.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the introduction of Neon tubing had a significant impact in the development of urban nocturnal spectacles as Neon could produce effects which far outstripped the capacity of any earlier light sources.

Furthermore, Neon tubing could be manipulated into shapes for use in the creation of spectacular signage and the lavish silhouetting of buildings to express a sense of exuberant vitality, dynamism and prosperity.

So where did it all begin:

  • In 1683 Otto Von Guericke of Magdeburg managed to obtain light from the discharge of a static electrical device.
  • 26 years later Francis Hawksbee in his book ‘Physico-Mechanical Experiments’ describes how he had produced light by shaking a vacuum tube filled with mercury.
  • In 1744 Johann Heinrich Winkler, (not to be confused as an antecedent of the Fonz) a Professor in Physics at Leipzig conducted a similar experiment in a heat-bent tube forming a name.
  • Over 100 years later in 1856 Heinrich Geissler produced the first prototype of the modern luminous tube when he experimented with a sealed low-pressure tube in which he produced light using a high voltage, alternating current.
  • In subsequent years in England both Michael Faraday and William Crookes experimented and proved that all gases or vapours are capable of carrying a current and can produce light even more effectively than incandescent lamps.
  • Between the 1860s and 1890s various people were issued with British patents for a process that used coloured lights from Geissler tubes, filled with gases potentially for maritime signalling purposes, regrettably this was without success.
  • During the 1890s both Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla (a former employee of Edison) went head to head and engaged in a battle in America to create an answer to all mans’ electrical energy needs. Both men experienced success initially and demonstrations from both parties were sensational. However, the gases and vapours within the tubes inter-reacted chemically with the electrodes which caused deterioration and ultimately, failure.
  • Mcfarland Moore (another former employee of Edison) overcame the issue of the corroding electrode and started to produce tubing in a large diameter format which was more effective than incandescent lamps. This breakthrough was quickly recognised by General Electric (G.E.) as a threat to their light bulb business and so G.E. purchased the patents from Moore.
  • Meanwhile back in England Sir William Ramsey and Morris W. Travers developed a process of fractional distillation of liquid air that made it possible to isolate rare gases. In 1897 at an Exhibition to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Ramsey and Travers mounted a display of Geissler tubes filled with these rarer gases which included Neon, Argon, Krypton and Xenon. The brilliance and resistance to oxidation promised a new stage in tube lighting, but the cost was still highly prohibitive.
  • It then remained for the Frenchman Georges Claude and simultaneously in 1907 the German Karl Von Linde to utilize liquid air on a scale large enough to make the fractional distillation of Argon and Neon gases commercially viable.
  • Claude began a process of producing high quality oxygen. During this process he found himself with sizable quantities of rare gases as a leftover. Searching for a way to utilise these by-products he came across the Moore tube. By filling these tubes with either Neon or Argon gas and then bombarding them with electricity he was able to achieve clear intense red (Neon) and greyish blue (Argon) lights. He was then able to experiment with coating the interior surface of the glass tubing to create a range of different colours.
  • Claude saw the lamps as a form of indoor and outdoor illumination far superior to anything previously utilised. Claude’s associate Jacques Fonseque recognised the potential of using the product for advertising and created the first Neon sign for a barber’s shop in Paris named ‘Palais Coiffeur’. A year later the first roof mounted and more spectacular sign was installed on the Paris skyline – 1m high lettering “CINZANO”, which was followed by striking illumination to the entrance of the Paris Opera in 1919.
  • After ‘Claude Neon’s’ unsuccessful attempt to sell G.E. an exclusive licence in 1924 ‘Claude Neon’ began an early form of franchising instead in starting to sell territorial licences to produce the technology outside of France.
  • The venture was fraught with issues most notably with infringement rights as the popularity of Neon spread. In addition, the tubing was fragile and did not travel well which resulted in a proliferation of small Neon shops and the necessity for localised manufacture.
  • In 1929 ‘Claude Neon’ reported annual sales of 9 million dollars but the empire later collapsed in the early 1930s as the patents expired.

The popularity of Neon then began to gather momentum as creative influences in various parts of the world embarked on the design of spectacular static and animated images, signage and the building of decorative features.

The technologies employed in the 1930s to create the tubing is not too far removed from today’s methods of production.

The Argon filled tubing was also conventionally formed in grids as a backlighting to illuminate Perspex panelling in signs but this was eventually replaced by the use of the fluorescent lamp which in turn in today’s market has been superseded by low voltage LED technology.

In the UK today there are only a rare few producing traditional Neon tubing which is still preferred by those trying to create a retro look and feel and Butterfield Signs are proud to be part of both the heritage and continued story of Neon.

For further details:
Butterfield Signs
+44 (0)1274 722 244


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