Neon: the light of my life

by Rachel Cook

For the love of neon
Oh neon, how I love you so! To be honest though, I actually love helium even more than I love neon; it’s a deliciously pale fleshy-pinky colour when lit and I really wish there was more of it around… But I digress. This is a story about my love for the art form of neon, and a little bit of education about the lovely stuff, too, so let me cut to the chase.

The history of neon
Neon has been around since 1902, when French inventor/scientist Georges Claude discovered the red, glowing magic that happens when an electrical charge is applied to a glass tube full of practically pure neon.

  • The first neon sign was sold to a Parisian barbers in 1912 and the ‘liquid fire’, as it was then known, quickly caught on and began to light up the world. In the 1920s and 30s demand outstripped supply, and big cities like Paris and Vegas in particular became shining beacons of neon love.

  • Within a few decades though, this amazing art form began to decline, as neon was replaced by less fragile and cheaper alternatives. Neon shops had no choice but to close. Skip a few decades to the present day, and most of the stuff you see around now that looks like neon is much more likely to be a fluorescent or LED light. Buyers are choosing to forgo tradition and hand-made beauty for robustness and cheapness.

    I understand why people are seeking the easy option, but it makes me sad all the same. As you’ll have gathered, I just want to spread the news, disciple-style, in the hope that you, lovely reader, will help to keep the neon flame alight. Here’s a little of what I know of the art of neon, of the machine with the coolest name ever, and why neon is way better than soulless, boring fluoro…

    My neon initiation
    Neon Workshops in Wakefield was the host of my first dalliance into the world of neon one Saturday back in July. They’re the only not-for-profit neon arts organisation in the UK, doing their best to keep the art of neon alive. NW create works of neon art, take paid commissions, and teach the basics (and more) to curious sorts such as me, and do it all brilliantly. Nope, they’re not paying me to write this, but please do check them out. Oh and here’s an amazing piece they did as part of their piece 12 Months of Neon Love.

  • Back to the course. It was short and sweet, but just enough to teach me the basic principles… Below is some of the more interesting stuff I’ve learned. It requires a bit of science talk, so Bunsen burners and safety goggles at the ready please…

    Neon 101

    - Neon is one of six noble gases. The others are xenon, argon, krypton, helium and radon. They’re inert gases found naturally the air, albeit in tiny quantities. They’re totally clear, and don’t glow until we interfere with them.

    - Neon is also most commonly used as the collective name for CCFLs, or closed-cathode fluorescent lamps. This is the less catchy name for the lights created when neon and other gases have been forced into glass tubes via a vacuum, at the end of which sits an electrode. We can then send a tiiiiny current through the gas and cause it to glow.

    - The process of making neon lights is done with a machine called – wait for it – an ELECTRON BOMARDER. The one at Neon Workshops is like something from Return to the Forbidden Planet, with steering wheels to release the gas, brilliant gauges to show levels of, you know, things, and all sorts of other retro coolness. Apparently it’s really quite dangerous though, so we weren’t allowed to touch it, but it was great nonetheless. Here she is…

  • - As I hinted at the start of this article, only neon is that famous orangey red colour. The other gases have other distinctive colours. Argon is blue, helium is lovely fleshy-pink, xenon is pale blue, and krypton, as you might guess, is green. We don’t concern ourselves with the colour of radon, what with it being all radioactive and stuff…

  • - Despite the limited range, other colours can be achieved without resorting to LEDs or other such modern nonsense. The colour that the light emits can be changed in a few ways: by using coloured glass; by applying colour to the outside of clear glass, and even by mixing the gases (carefully).

    - Contrary to popular belief, neon lights use very, very little energy. Not as little as an LED, granted, but then the latter are devoid of soul and heritage.

    - Neon lights last for ages and ages. One of the first, created over 100 years ago, still works to this day and can be seen in a museum in London, glowing beautifully. In 2012, a neon light was found in LA that had actually been glowing non-stop for 77 years. 77 years! And my dad used to shout if I left the light on for ten minutes at home…. Read the story of the 77 year old neon light here

    The art of neon
    Those tubes full of gas that I mentioned? They’re the vessels that allow neon to be captured and shaped into the beautiful glowing sculptures we associate with neon lights

    They start life as a straight tube made of really thin, fragile glass, which is then heated and shaped. We had a go at this bit, and it’s fun but really tricky. You start with a long length of tube that you heat over a (slightly terrifying) length of intense blue gas flame, until the glass glows red. Next, you pull it out of the flame and bend it quickly into shape, whilst blowing steadily through the thin rubber tube in your mouth to keep the tube open. You have to work quickly and with skill – sadly something that doesn’t come naturally to me. Here I am, doing my best though…

  • When I had a go, none of us managed anything more than an artistic squiggle, but the process is lovely. I’m tempted to go back and try a full day’s workshop, and create an actual design of my own, fully electroded (?) and everything, but we’ll see.

    How’s that for a glowing reference?
    And that’s it. Here endeth the lecture on my neon love (and with it my flagrant abuse of light-related puns). I’ll be back with a second instalment though, no doubt. Next up, I’ve a burning desire to tell you all about Leeds’ brilliant neon history… For example, did you know that in the 1940s Leeds was the only place in the country making neon signs? Or that until 3 years ago, there were 5 neon shops in Leeds – more than in the whole of Scandinavia? And… You get the gist. On the edge of your seat for Instalment 2 please.


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