Making Neon Signs
Neon signs are made using electrified, luminous tube lights that contain rarefied neon or other gases. They are the most common use for neon lighting, which was first demonstrated in a modern form in December, 1910 by Georges Claude at the Paris Motor Show. While they are used worldwide, neon signs were extremely popular in the United States from about 1920-1960. The installations in Times Square were famed worldwide; around the U.S. there were nearly 2000 small shops producing neon signs by 1940. In addition to signage, neon lighting is now used frequently by artists and architects, and (in a modified form) in plasma display panels and televisions. The signage industry has declined in the past several decades, and cities are now concerned with preserving and restoring their antique neon signs (see bibliography below).
The neon sign is an evolution of the earlier Geissler tube, which is an electrified glass tube containing a "rarefied" gas (the gas pressure in the tube is well below atmospheric pressure). When a voltage is applied to electrodes inserted through the glass, an electrical "glow discharge" results. Geissler tubes were quite popular in the late 1800s, and the different colors they emitted were characteristics of the gases within. They were, however, unsuitable for general lighting; the pressure of the gas inside typically declined in use. The direct predecessor of neon tube lighting was the Moore tube, which used nitrogen or carbon dioxide as the luminous gas and a patented mechanism for maintaining pressure; Moore tubes were sold for commercial lighting for a number of years in the early 1900s.
The discovery of neon in 1898 included the observation of a brilliant red glow in Geissler tubes. Immediately following neon's discovery, neon tubes were used as scientific instruments and novelties. A sign created by Perley G. Nutting and displaying the word "neon" may have been shown at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, although this claim has been disputed; in any event, the scarcity of neon would have precluded the development of a lighting product. However, after 1902, Georges Claude's company in France, Air Liquide, began producing industrial quantities of neon, essentially as a byproduct of their air liquefaction business. From December 3-18, 1910, Claude demonstrated two 40-foot (12 meter) long bright red neon tubes at the Paris Motor Show. This demonstration lit a peristyle of the Grand Palais (a large exhibition hall). Claude's associate, Jacques Fonseque, realized the possibilities for a business based on signage and advertising. By 1913 a large sign for the vermouth "Cinzano" illuminated the night sky in Paris, and by 1919 the entrance to the Paris Opera was adorned with neon tube lighting. Over the next several years, patents were granted to Claude for two innovations still used today: a "bombardment" technique to remove impurities from the working gas of a sealed sign, and a design for the internal electrodes of the sign that prevented their degradation by sputtering.
In 1923, Georges Claude and his French company Claude Neon, introduced neon gas signs to the United States, by selling two to a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles. Earle C. Anthony purchased the two signs reading "Packard" for $1,250 apiece. Neon lighting quickly became a popular fixture in outdoor advertising. Visible even in daylight, people would stop and stare at the first neon signs for hours, dubbed "liquid fire."
The next major technological innovation in neon lighting and signs was the development of fluorescent tube coatings. Jacques Risler received a French patent in 1926 for these. Neon signs that use an argon/mercury gas mixture emit a good deal of ultraviolet light. When this light is absorbed by a fluorescent coating, preferably inside the tube, the coating (called a "phosphor") glows with its own color. While only a few colors were initially available to sign designers, after the Second World War (1939-1945) phosphor materials were researched intensively for use in color televisions. About two dozen colors were available to neon sign designers in the 1960s, and today there are nearly 100 available colors.
Neon tube signs are produced by the craft of bending glass tubing into shapes. A worker skilled in this craft is known as a glass bender, neon or tube bender. The neon tube is made out of 3-4 foot (1 meter) straight "sticks" of glass tubing, which are sold by sign suppliers to neon shops worldwide. The shops typically fabricate individual, custom-designed and manufactured signs. Manufacturing is a cottage industry and an eclectic art, in most cases, and is often a small family business. Neon signs are hand made and labor intensive, even today; the shop equipment is normally custom assembled from scratch by the craftsmen themselves from parts. There are many dozens of colors available. The color is chosen by the type of tubing used, and the gas filling.
Clear glass tubing with outer diameters (OD) ranging from about 8–15 mm is most commonly used; the tubing normally has a wall thickness 1.0 mm. 6 mm tubing is also commercially available in colored glass tubes. The tube is heated in sections using several types of burners that are selected according to the amount of glass to be heated for each bend. These burners include ribbon, cannon, or crossfires, as well as a variety of gas torches. Ribbon burners are strips of fire that make the gradual bends while crossfires, when used, make the sharp bends.
After bending, the interior of the tubes may be coated with a thin phosphorescent powder coating, affixed to the interior wall of the tube by a binding material. The tube is filled with a purified gas mixture, and the gas ionized by a high voltage applied between the ends of the sealed tube through cold cathodes welded onto the ends. The color of the light emitted by the tube may be just that coming from the gas, or the light from the phosphor layer. Different phosphor-coated tubing sections may be butt welded together using glass working torches to form a single tube of varying colors, for effects such as a sign where each letter displays a different color letter within a single word, such as shown in the sign in the photo above right.
"Neon" is used to denote the general type of lamp, but neon gas is only one of the types of tube gases principally used in commercial application. Pure neon gas is used to produce only about a third of the colors. The greatest number of colors is produced by filling with another inert gas, argon, and a drop of mercury (Hg) which is added to the tube immediately after purification. When the tube is ionized by electrification, the mercury evaporates into mercury vapor, which fills the tube and produces strong ultraviolet light. The ultraviolet light thus produced excites the various phosphor coatings designed to produce different colors. Even though this class of neon tubes use no neon at all, they are still generically denoted as "neon." Mercury-bearing lamps are a type of cold-cathode fluorescent lamp.
Each type of neon tubing produces two completely different possible colors, one with neon gas and the other with argon/mercury. Some "neon" tubes are made without phosphor coatings for some of the colors. Clear tubing filled with neon gas produces the ubiquitous yellowish orange color with the interior plasma column clearly visible, and is the cheapest and simplest tube to make. Traditional neon glasses in America over 20 years old are lead glass that are easy to soften in gas fires, but recent environmental and health concerns of the workers has prompted manufacturers to seek more environmentally safe special soft glass formulas. One of the vexing problems avoided this way is lead glass' tendency to burn into a black spot emitting lead fumes in a bending flame too rich in the fuel/oxygen mixture. Another traditional line of glasses was colored soda lime glasses coming in a myriad of glass color choices, which produce the highest quality, most hypnotically vibrant and saturated hues. Still more color choices are afforded in either coating, or not coating, these colored glasses with the various available exotic phosphors. A complete sign consists of several electrically connected separate tubes, with different interior phosphor coatings and different gas fills needed to produce the entire range of colors desired in the sign.
It is the wide range of colors and the ability to make a tube that can last for years if not decades without replacement, that makes this an art. Since these tubes require so much custom labor, they would have very little economic viability if they didn't have such a long lifetime when well processed. The intensity of neon light produced increases slowly as the tube diameter grows smaller, that is, the intensity varies inversely with the square root of the interior diameter of the tubing, and the resistance of the tube increases as the tubing diameter decreases accordingly, because tube ionization is greatest at the center of the tube, and the ions migrate to and are recaptured and neutralized at the tube walls. The greatest cause of neon tube failure is the gradual absorption of neon gas by high voltage ion implantation into the interior glass walls of the tubes which depletes the gas, and eventually causes the tube resistance to rise to a level that it can no longer light at the rated voltage, but this may take 7–10 years.
The actual cause of 80% of neon sign failures is the burnout of the high voltage electrical wires connecting the tubes inside of metal conduits. A very common type of neon sign is made from a formed metal box having a colored translucent face, called "channel lettering." Newer channel letter signs are being replaced by high brightness LEDs.
This long lifetime has created a practical market for neon use for interior architectural cove lighting in a wide variety of uses including homes, where the tube can be bent to any shape, fitted in a small space, and can do so without requiring tube replacement for a decade or more.
A section of the glass is heated until it is malleable; then it is bent into shape and aligned to a pattern containing the graphics or lettering that the final product will ultimately conform to. This is where the real art of neon comes in that takes some artisans from a year up to several years of practice to master. A tube bender corks off the hollow tube before heating and holds a latex rubber blow hose at the other end, through which he gently presses a small amount of air in order to keep the tube diameter constant as it is bending. The trick of bending is to bend one small section or bend at a time, heating one part of the tubing so that it is soft, without heating some other part of the tube as well, which would make the bend uncontrollable. A bend, once the glass is heated, must be brought to the pattern and fitted rapidly before the glass hardens again because it is difficult to reheat once completely cooled without risking breakage. It is frequently necessary to skip one or more bends and come back to it later, by measuring carefully along the length of the tube. One tube letter may contain 7-10 small bends, and mistakes are not easily corrected without going back and starting all over again. If more tubing is required, another piece is welded onto it, or the parts can be all welded onto each other at the final step. The finished tube must be absolutely vacuum tight in order to operate, and it must be vacuum clean inside. Once the tube is filled with mercury, if any mistake is made after that, the entire tube had, or should, be started over again, because breathing heated mercury impregnated glass and phosphor causes long term heavy metal poisoning in neon workers. Sticks of tubing are joined until the tube reaches an impractical size, and several tubes are joined in series with the high voltage neon transformer. Extreme ends of the electrical circuit must be isolated from each other to prevent tube puncture and buzzing from corona effect.
Neon and Argon are inert noble gases, pure elements. As long as there are no other gases left in the pre-filled tube, neon will maintain its life for long periods of time, subject only to the long process of ion implantation that gradually absorbs the gas over many years. But there are metal electrodes and, in the case of argon tubes, mercury beads inside the tube that can burn quickly in a very few seconds destroying the tube if any remnants of reactive atmospheric gases are left over, and it is necessary to "convert" the cold cathode powder coatings in these electodes from BaCO2 to low work function BaO2 by heating them to an incandescent temperature, and to drive out and evacuate the oxygen, carbon dioxide and water which clings to the walls of the tube after being exposed to the atmosphere. This is done in a vacuum heating process known commercially as "bombardment."
A cold cathode electrode is fused by heating with a natural gas/compressed air hand torch(or welded) to each end of the tube as it is finished. The electrodes are also traditionally lead glass and contain a small metal shell with two wires protruding through the glass to which the sign wiring will later be attached. All welds and seals must be perfectly leak-proof to high vacuum before proceeding further.
The tube is attached to a manifold which is itself attached to a high-quality vacuum pump. The tube is then evacuated of air until it reaches near-vacuum. During evacuation, a high electrical current is forced through the tube via the wires protruding from each electrode (in a process known as "bombarding"). This current and voltage is far above the level that occurs in final operation of the tube. The current depends on the specific electrodes used and the diameter of the tube, but is typically in the 450 mA to 800 mA range, at an applied voltage usually between 22,000-26,000 V. The bombarding transformer acts as an adjustable constant current source, and the voltage produced depends on the length and pressure of the tube. Typically the operator will maintain the pressure as high as the bombarder will allow to ensure maximum power dissipation and heating.
This very high power dissipation in the tube heats the glass walls to a temperature of several hundred degrees Celsius, and any dirt and impurities within are drawn off in the gasified form by the vacuum pump. The greatest impurities that are driven off this way are the gases that coat the inside wall of the tubing by adsorption, mainly oxygen, carbon dioxide, and especially water vapor. The current also heats the electrode metal to over 600oC, producing a bright orange incandescent color. The cathodes are prefabricated hollow metal shells with a small opening (sometimes a ceramic donut aperture) which contains in the interior surface of the shell a light dusting of a cold cathode low work function powder (usually a powder ceramic molar eutectic point mixture including BaCO2, combined with other alkaline earth oxides, which reduces to BaO2 when heated to about 500 degrees F, and reduces the work function of the electrode for cathodic emission. Barium Oxide has a work function of roughly 2 whereas tungsten at room temperature has a work function exponentially 100 times more, or 4.0. This represents the cathode drop or electron energy required to remove electrons from the surface of the cathode. This avoids the necessity of using a hot wire thermoelectric cathode such as is used in conventional fluorescent lamps. And for that reason, neon tubes are extremely long lived when properly processed, in contrast to fluorescent tubing, because there is no wire filament as there is in a fluorsecent tube to burn out like a common light bulb. The principal purpose of doing this is to purify the interior of the tube before the tube is sealed off so that when it is operated, these gases and impurities are not driven off and released by the plasma and the heat generated into the sealed tube, which would quickly burn the metal cathodes and mercury droplets (if pumped with argon/mercury) and oxidize the interior gases and cause immediate tube failure. The more thorough the purification of the tube is, the longer lasting and stable the tube will be in actual operation. Once these gases and impurities are liberated under pre-filling bombardment into the tube interior they are quickly evacuated by the pump.
While still attached to the manifold, the tube is allowed to cool while pumping down to the lowest pressure the system can achieve. It is then back-filled to a low pressure (a few Torr (T)or about 1 kilopascals (kPa)) with neon, argon, or one of the other inert gases, or a mixture of them, and sometimes a small amount of mercury. This gas fill pressure represents roughly 1/100th of the pressure of the atmosphere (nominally 760 Torr or 100 kPa). The required pressure depends on the gas used and the diameter of the tube, with optimal values ranging from 6 T (0.8 kPa) for a long 20 mm tube filled with argon/mercury) to 27 T (3.6 kPa) for a short 8 mm diameter tube filled with pure neon. Neon or argon are the most common gases used; krypton, xenon, and helium are used by artists for special purposes but are not used alone in normal signs. A premixed combination of argon and helium is often used in lieu of pure argon when a tube is to be installed in a cold climate, since the helium increases voltage drop (and thus power dissipation), warming the tube to operating temperature faster. Neon glows bright red or reddish orange when lit. When argon or argon/helium is used, a tiny droplet of mercury is added. Argon by itself is very dim pale lavender when lit, but the droplet of mercury fills the tube with mercury vapor when sealed, which then emits ultraviolet light upon electrification. This ultraviolet emission allows finished argon/mercury tubes to glow with a variety of bright colors when the tube has been coated on the interior with ultraviolet-sensitive phosphors after being bent into shape.
Heat processed neon tubes
An alternate way of processing finished neon tubes has also been used. Because the only purpose of bombardment by electrical means is to purify the interior of tubes, it is also possible to produce a tube by heating the tube externally either with a torch or with an oven, while heating the electrode with a Radio Frequency Induction Heating coil (RFIH). While this is less productive, it creates a cleaner custom tube with significantly less cathode damage, longer life and brilliance, and can produce tubes of very small sizes and diameters, down to 6 mm OD. The tube is heated thoroughly under high vacuum without external electrical application, until the outgassed gases can be seen to have been totally depleted and the pressure drops to a high vacuum again. Then the tube is filled, sealed and the mercury dropped and shaken.
The finished glass pieces are illuminated by either a neon sign transformer or a switching power supply running at voltages ranging between 3-15 kV and currents between 20 and 120 mA. These power supplies operate as constant-current sources (a high voltage supply with a very high internal impedance), since the tube has a negative characteristic electrical impedance. Standard tube tables established in the early days of neon are still used that specify the gas fill pressures, in either Ne or Hg/Ar, as a function of tube length in feet, tube diameter and transformer voltage.
The standard traditional neon transformer, a magnetic shunt transformer, is a special non-linear type designed to keep the voltage across the tube raised to whatever level is necessary to produce the fixed current needed, up to the maximum limit of the neon footage possible.
Newer, compact high frequency inverter-converter transformers developed in the early '90s are used as well, especially when low Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) is needed, such as in locations near high-fidelity sound equipment. The reason for this is that at 20 kHz, the typical frequency of these solid state transformers, the plasma electron-ion recombination time is too short to extinguish and reignite the plasma in the tube at every 1/120th second as in 50/60Hz transformers and so the plasma does not broadcast high frequency switching noise. The plasma simply remains lit at all times, becoming radio noise free.
The most common current rating is 30 mA for general use, with 60 mA used for high-brightness applications like channel letters or architectural lighting. 120 mA sources are occasionally seen in illuminating applications, but are uncommon since special electrodes are required to withstand the current, and an accidental shock from a 120 mA transformer is much more likely to be fatal than from the lower current supplies.
Blocking out and coating
The trick of the eye neon plays is produced by blocking out parts of the tube with blockout paint, which is either painted on or dipped. One complete tube is actually composed of contiguous tube elements joined by glass welding to one another so that the entire voltage passes through, say, several letters end to end from cathode to cathode. To the untrained eye, it looks like separate tubes, but the electrical splice is the plasma inside the crossover glass itself. The entire tube lights up, unless the parts that the viewer is not supposed to see are covered with highly opaque special black or gray glass paint. Without blockout paint the display would appear confusing. In most mass produced signs today, a glass paint is often dipped to make ordinary tubing look like high quality colored glass tubing.
The light-emitting tubes form colored lines with which a text can be written or a picture drawn, including various decorations, especially in advertising and commercial signage. By programming sequences of switching parts on and off, there are many possibilities for dynamic light patterns that form animated images.
Neon signs are increasingly replaced with LED (light-emitting diode) signs due to the lower cost and longer operating life of LEDs. This trend seems likely to continue as LEDs continue to become brighter and cheaper.
Bibliography of neon sign preservation articles
- "2010 Top Ten Endangered Sites". Heritage Vancouver Society. http://www.heritagevancouver.org/topten/2010/topten2010_09.html. Retrieved 2010-12-05.
- Bass, Shermakaye (2007-06-06). "Neon Museum saving Las Vegas' iconic signs". The Los Angeles Times. http://travel.latimes.com/articles/la-trw-neonvegas10jun10. Retrieved 2009-09-12.
- Keen, Judy (October 6, 2008). "Save neon signs, fans urge". USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-10-06-neon-signs_N.htm.
Images of neon signs
- van Dulken, Stephen (2002). Inventing the 20th century: 100 inventions that shaped the world : from the airplane to the zipper. New York University Press. p. 42. ISBN 9780814788127. http://books.google.com/books?id=aVHRRoQvW60C&pg=PA42.
- Stern, Rudi (1988). The New Let There Be Neon. H. N. Abrams. pp. 16–33. ISBN 9780810912991.
- Bright, Jr., Arthur A. (1949). The Electric-Lamp Industry. MacMillan. Pages 221-223 describe Moore tubes. Pages 369-374 describe neon tube lighting. Page 385 discusses Risler's contributions to fluorescent coatings in the 1920s. Pages 388-391 discuss the development of the commercial fluorescent at General Electric in the 1930s.
- Popper, Frank (2009). "Neon". Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press. http://www.moma.org/collection/details.php?theme_id=10130.
- Thielen, Marcus (August 2005). "Happy Birthday Neon!". Signs of the Times. http://www.signmuseum.net/histories/happybirthdayneon.asp.
- Myers, Robert L. (2002). Display interfaces: fundamentals and standards. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 69–71. ISBN 9780471499466. http://books.google.com/books?id=ilHvFwoAZDMC&pg=PA69. "Plasma displays are closely related to the simple neon lamp."
- Weber, Larry F. (April 2006). IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science 34 (2): 268–278. doi:10.1109/TPS.2006.872440. Paid access.
- "Lamp Inventors 1880-1940: Moore Lamp". The Smithsonian Institution. http://americanhistory.si.edu/lighting/bios/moore.htm.
- Claude, Georges (November 1913). "The Development of Neon Tubes". The Engineering Magazine: 271–274. http://books.google.com/books?id=erpMAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA271.
- Weeks, Mary Elvira (2003). Discovery of the Elements: Third Edition (reprint). Kessinger Publishing. p. 287. http://books.google.com/books?id=SJIk9BPdNWcC&pg=PA287.
- Fleming, J. A. (October 1904). "The Propagation of Electric Waves along Spiral Wires, and on an Appliance for Measuring the Length of Waves Used in Wireless Telegraphy". Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science: Sixth Series 8 (46): 417. http://books.google.com/books?id=VJEOAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA419. Fleming used a tube of neon, without electrodes, to explore the amplitudes of radiofrequency waves by examining the intensity of the tube's light emission. He had obtained his neon directly from its discoverer, Ramsey.
- Howard, John K. (February 2009). "OSA’s First Four Presidents". Optics & Photonics News. http://www.opnmagazine-digital.com/opn/200902/?pg=14. Retrieved 2009-02-21.
- The dates of the show are listed at "Chronik 1901 - 1910/en". Mercedes Benz. http://et.mercedes-benz-clubs.com/mediawiki/index.php/Chronik_1901_-_1910/en.
- Testelin, Xavier. "Reportage - Il était une fois le néon No. 402". http://www.xaviertestelin.com/photo-402.html. Retrieved 2010-12-06. Claude's 1910 demonstration of neon lighting lit the peristyle of the Grand Palais in Paris; this webpage includes a contemporary photograph that gives an impression of it. It is part of an extensive selection of images of neon lighting; see "Reportage - Il était une fois le néon". http://www.xaviertestelin.com/sujet-6.html.
- These anecdotes and the phrase "liquid fire" are often used regarding the neon tube lights in Los Angeles, but the primary source may be lost. One example of a tertiary reference: Bellis, Mary. "The History of Neon Signs: Georges Claude and Liquid Fire". about.com. http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aa980107.htm.
- Hess, Alan (2004). Googie redux: ultramodern roadside architecture. Chronicle Books. p. 115. ISBN 9780811842723. http://books.google.com/books?id=uYiGA6QNE8sC&pg=PA115.