Family Fun with Neon Lights

neon game controller

Neon lights have been around for over a century now and show no sign of losing their popularity.  Frequently perceived as a symbol of modern innovation and new technology, neon lights are found all over the world.  It’s hard to think of places such as Las Vegas, Tokyo, Singapore or Times Square, New York without their iconic neon signs.  In recent years, the fashion for neon signs as part of an interior design scheme is a trend that shows no sign of dying out.  You may, however, be surprised to learn that it is unlikely that your neon sign actually contains any neon.

Who Discovered Neon

Neon is a gas that is obtained by liquifying air.  Back in 1898 British chemists Sir William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers were conducting experiments to find our what gases made up air.  They quickly discovered nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and krypton.  When the krypton was removed, one last gas remained and it emitted a bright red light when it was ionised. Allegedly, Ramsay’s son suggested naming this gas after the Greek word for new – ‘neos’.  So the new element was called neon.

The First Neon Lights

georges claude neon tubeRamsay and Travers made a light using neon but because neon was rare and expensive to extract it wasn’t commercially viable.

It wasn’t until 1902 that a Frenchman, Georges Claude found a way to obtain neon from air in an affordable way.  He showed off his invention at the Paris Motor Show in 1910 and went on to have a very successful company selling neon lights.  Traditionally, the first commercial neon sign installed was in Montmartre, Pairs in 1912.  It was for a Parisian hairdresser and said “Palais Coiffeur”.

Even though the USA is known for its liberal use of neon signs, the first American neon sign was probably put up in Los Angeles around 1923.  Two huge neon signs fixed to the top of a hotel to spell out “Packard”, advertising Earle C Anthony car company.  So many people came to see the “liquid fire” signs that the police had to be called to control the crowds.

How Do Neon Signs Work?

Neon signs were originally made using vacuum tubes.  Glass tubes are shaped into the desired design, then filled with neon gas.  Electrodes are fitted to each end of the tube and an alternating current is fired through the tube.  The electricity gives the neon atoms the energy to move about, bumping into each other and ionising the atoms.  Simply put, ionising means the neon atoms lose an electron, known as free electrons.  The energy the neon atoms and the free electrons use to become reunited can be seen as bright, orange light.

Why Isn’t There Neon in My Lights?

As you may have noticed from the explanation above, neon produces orange light.  You will have seen neon lights in many other colours though. If the light is any other colour but orange it does not contain neon.

Neon belongs to a group of elements called noble gases.  Each of the noble gases gives off a different colour when ionised, with the colour becoming more intense if more energy is used.  Neon gives an orange light, argon a blue light, Helium a yellow light, Krypton a green light, Xenon a grey light and Radon a purple light.  So if a different colour is need the glass tube is filled with a gas, or mixture of gases, to get the required shade.  Even though the light might be coming from helium or argon, the lights are still known as neon lights.

Another method used to get different coloured neon lights is to use a coloured coating on the inside of the glass tube.  Since other noble gases are cheaper to produce than neon, coated tubed are usually filled with argon.

LED Neon Lights

The latest trend in neon lights is to use LED Neon.  However, LED Neon does no contain any neon which is why it is sometimes also referred to as “faux-neon”.  LED lights are used to create a look very similar to neon.  Tiny diodes in a combination of red, green or blue are overlapped to create a stable light source in a range of colours.  LED Neon is generally preferred as it is more versatile, usually cheaper and considered safer and more environmentally friendly


It is highly unlikely that your neon light contains any neon.  It is most likely a combination LEDs imitating neon.  Even if it is a traditional glass tube light, unless it is orange it is filled with some other gas, not neon.  If it is orange, it could have a coloured coating making it seem the orange of neon but actually be a cheaper gas.  If you would like to see a genuine neon light there are a number of museums that collect and display signs that you could visit.  However, even if it does not contain actual neon, a neon sign is still a thing of beauty we can all enjoy.

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