We have all experienced this piece of Americana in some shape or form. At one time its flashing glow beckoned weary travelers from off the highways along places like Route 66. Neon signs were once the calling card of virtually every diner and motel that popped up along the twists and turns of America’s most famous roads. With a look that at the same time was both alluring and gaudy, this modern day version of the roadside sign reach its peak during the heydays of the 50’s and early 60’s.
But what about it’s grand beginning? You can blame its start on the renown scientist Nikola Tesla, who unveiled his neon lamp sign at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago. Tesla’s lamp borrowed elements of German physicists Heinrich Geissler’s famous electrical tubes.
Building upon the shoulder of this genius, the French chemist George Claude then developed the “neon sign.” Claude achieved this by passing a small electric current through an inert gas to produce a light within a glass tube. Through the mixing of other gases with neon, Claude was able to produce an array of color in the tubes. The most common of the mixtures used in neon lamps is the Penning mixture, which calls for a neon gas (98-99.5% of the mix) to be mixed with argon (0.5-2% of the mix). This mixture has the added effect of lowering the striking voltage required to start and sustain the operation. Claude also discovered that the tubes that held the gaseous mixture could easily be twisted and shaped to make the letters and pictures we are all accustomed to.
George Claude unveiled this modern day innovation in lighting at the 1910 Paris Expo. Thirteen years later under a company named Claude’s Neon, Claude introduced his neon gas signs to the United States. The first of these neon signs were purchased by a Packard Motor Car Company dealership in Los Angeles. The dealership at the time paid $1,250 a piece for the signs. The Roaring Twenties saw the popularization of this type of sign that was visible by both day and night, and neon signs began to dot the landscape. The used of the signs reached its heydays in the 1950’s with places like Las Vegas making ample use of them. By the 1960’s the introduction of city ordinances along the highways began to regulate some of the uses for these types of signs, and the crazy met with a sharp decline.
While the crazy of the neon sign has passed us by, there is an effort being made to restore some of the more historical signs that once littered the side of the road down Route 66. Thanks in part to the passing of the Route 66 Corridor Restoration Act of 1999, signs along the New Mexico stretch of the historic road are being restored. It is nice to know that future generations will be able to enjoy this slice of American history.