Las Vegas? Times Square? Tokyo? Maybe something else.
Let's first start with what's inside a neon sign, what is it made out of.
Well, two most common are Neon for sure and Argon. Others include helium, xenon and krypton. Each of these chemicals/gases produces a different color.
Neon lights are "cold cathode gas-discharge" lights. Which basically means an electric discharge is sent through a ionized gas/plasma (plasma -- like plasma TV's! They use the same type of science) and these electrons are emitted without having to be heated.
"Neon" is used to refer to the general type of lamp, but it's only one of the gases used and it's actually pretty limited. When additional gases are added immediately after the tube is "purified". It's like a chain reaction; when the tube is ionized by electrification, mercury evaporates into mercury vapor, which fills the tube and produces the ultraviolet light mentioned before. This light excites whatever phosphor coating are chosen to be inside and produce different colors.
It all started with the Geissler Tube invented in 1855. After the invention of this tube, scientists began... experimenting. They discovered that a gas under low pressure, plus electrical voltage, created a glow.
Enter stage right, Mr. Georges Claude. Inventor of the First Neon Lamp circa 1902!!
Although he wasn't the first to discover "neon gas" (that was William Ramsey & M.W. Travers in 1898) he was the first to apply an electric discharge to a sealed tube of that gas.
But the neon sign biz owes it Jacques Fonseque, Claude's assistant who saw the business possibilities (signage) in such lighting.
The first sign in the US for Packard car dealership sold for $24,000 in 1923.
These signs are made using hollow tubes made of all types of glass materials. There's "soft" and "hard" glasses. For example, lead glass is "soft". The range of heat needed is between 1600 F - 2000 F depending on the glass being used.
Fluorescent lighting is very similar but was developed 25 years after neon tube lights.
Which leads to this... Fluorescent tube coatings was a major innovation in 1926. When ultraviolet light is absorbed by fluorescent coating inside the tube, the phosphor glows with it's own color. Further research of phosphor opened the door to more colors!
The act of bending such glass tubes is a skilled craft! These signs have the ability to last for years if crafted correctly.
There is a whole other business to tube bending!
#1 concern: legibility. The lines produced are thicker than what you draw, so if signs are designed with the lines too close, the sign will be illegible at night (Common mistakes that sign makers run into when creating signs). Also, the problems of certain customers wanting relatively elaborate typefaces and some things do not look good in neon.
Theres ways people can achieve the look of "neon" texts using programs like Photoshop & After Effects but, of course, it's not the same as an actual, tangible sign.
See some pros in these videos in the act of tube bending!
Stephen Conlon - http://vimeo.com/70796983
Hong Kong sign industry - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsIo57pH-pA
Pretty neat book: Magic of Neon by Michael Webb
Get your shiny library on!
Museum to visit!