Monday, June 11, 2012

Light a Neon Candle

The murky origins of neon signs make it perennially difficult to pick any single anniversary to celebrate as their true date of birth.  One date, however, is hard and fast: on June 12, 1898, the British scientists Sir William Ramsay and Morris William Travers discovered the gas they named neon.

"Of the five elements with four-letter names, it's the only one that's not solid at room temperature." (Jeopardy 

The details of the discovery are well recorded thanks to numerous published works, including several books authored by Travers later in his life.  "The blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story, and it was a sight to dwell upon and never to forget," he remembered in The Discovery of the Rare Gases, published in 1928: "nothing in the world gave a glow such as we had seen."



Sir William Ramsay's discovery of neon and the other noble gases helped earn him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1904.  It was Ramsay's adolescent son Willie whose suggestion led the gas to be called "neon" in 1898. (NobelPrize.org)

At risk of some reckless oversimplification, I will attempt to reduce the science to layman's terms.  Ramsay and Travers spent years isolating the various gases that exist in the earth's atmosphere – in other words, breaking the air we breathe down into its component parts.  To do this, they cooled air to an extremely low temperature, turning it to liquid.  As the liquid air then warmed, its component elements returned to a gaseous state in sequence, making it possible to collect small samples of them individually.  In addition to neon, this basic principle enabled Ramsay to discover argon, krypton and xenon.  Neon's luminous properties became apparent almost immediately: as a matter of course, Ramsay and Travers passed an electric current through a glass-enclosed sample of the gas, an analysis of the resultant glow helping to determine whether they indeed had found a new gas.


Morris William Travers, aka "Rare Gas Travers", was in his twenties when he and William Ramsay discovered neon. (Science Photo Library)


All of this happened in the last years of the long reign of Queen Victoria: odd as it may seem, neon is a bona fide product of the Victorian era.  By at least one account, Ramsay and Travers used neon together with several other gases to make an illuminated sign in tribute to Victoria in 1898.  (My efforts to find primary documentation of this sign have thus far come to naught.) 






Sample colors in the New York shop of Let There Be Neon.  After its discovery, neon took on something of a life of its own.  Many if not most luminous tubes used for "neon signs" actually contain argon, not neon.  (T. Rinaldi)

Another decade would pass before other developments facilitated the commercial viability of neon illumination.  For all the controversy that would haunt the evolution of neon signs in the years that followed, credit for neon's place on the periodic table remains securely with Ramsay and Travers.






East 138th Street in the Bronx.  (T. Rinaldi)

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