Thank you for participating in the neon course at the South Carolina Institute of NEON, which stands for Neon Excites Our Neurons. You are embarking on an adventure to understand the role neon plays in our emotional reactions and decisions. We often hear sales gurus who advise, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” My current view at SC NEON is, “Sell the glow, not the gas.” In our neon course, we’ll examine the discovery, science, and application of neon through history, architecture, advertising, and modern lifestyles.
In reality, there is no SC NEON course, but let’s take the initiative to explore the history and applications of neon, discovering how it creates positive emotions and reactions in our lives.
Neon gas was discovered by chemists in 1898. Neon is a noble gas — no pun intended — with the symbol NE. Noble gases are known for being stable and nonreactive. To discover neon, British chemists supercooled samples of air at minus 400 F until gases liquefied, then boiled the liquid until the gases were separated and captured in glass tubing. Chemists being chemists, they applied electrical charges to the tubed gases, resulting in a glowing red-orange color, and neon light was born.
Neon is the fourth most abundant element in the atmosphere but present in only 0.00189 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. When electrified, neon atoms become excited, producing heat and red-orange visible colors. Other neon colors are a combination of neon mixed with the gases mercury, argon, and helium. The dominant use of neon is in advertising signage.
French engineer George Claude invented and produced neon lights in the early 1900s. Paris, known as the “City of Lights,” debuted neon lights at the Paris Auto Show in 1910. George sought to use neon lighting for residential lighting, but sales were minimal. However, in 1912, George sold neon lighting for uses in advertising signage, and business thrived. The aura of neon spread throughout the world, and major cities became centers of excitement as residents marveled at a bold, colorful, new world electrified by the glow and atmosphere neon lighting provided. Many small town art deco theater facades in America included vibrant designs of neon lights, with a combination of rolling lights to attract audiences.
Following World War II, neon lighting experienced an explosion in popularity and uses. The automobile boom allowed Americans to travel, vacation, and explore our country along federal highways. Hotels, motels, restaurants, gas stations, and roadside attractions on major highways used neon lighting to grab the travelers’ attention and encourage a stop or stay along the way.
As a young boy, traveling to family vacations in a packed station wagon, I remember arriving at motels and listening to the humming and buzzing a large neon sign emitted as I stood close by. I marveled at the glowing, vibrant colors. In my mind, the Holiday Inn neon signage took the prize for their grandeur and impact on my memories of childhood travels.
In South Carolina, federal highways 301 and 601 served as travel corridors for Northern travelers heading to vacation in Florida’s sunshine and warmer temperatures. The introduction of interstate highways in the early ’60s negatively impacted small town economies and the uses of neon. Today, on small town highways paralleling interstates, abandoned motels and restaurants remind us of the grand era of neon signs. At best, you might spot a functioning sign with several letters or tubes burned out.
Currently in Columbia, a renaissance of neon usage is underway. The best application of neon lighting can be found at the “Nick” or Nickelodeon on Main Street, reminiscent of movie theaters from the past. Restaurants and clubs in the Vista and Five Points grab the attention of consumers with vibrant neon signage, helping boost excitement in these entertainment districts. The city of West Columbia recently renovated the city’s gateway signage, which features WECO in bold neon letters. Working with Riggs Partners, city leaders wanted this historic sign to remain a welcoming icon to travelers as they enter city limits.
Several decades ago, red-neon letters towered over the city of Columbia, as the words Adluh Flour glowed atop silos, seen for blocks. I have noticed over the past decade downtown Main Street renovations include neon signage on restaurant facades, using vibrant colors to attract customers. In general, the overall lighting is colorful and inviting, offering a sense of renewed excitement in the business district. The use of neon lighting has proven to raise attention to businesses, improve the ambiance of a location, and elevate the mood of customers. Let’s not forget the hundreds of neon signs used in doors and windows of businesses with letters spelling OPEN.
Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin. In my opinion, Neon ought to be known as Vitamin NE. Without light, life on Earth would not exist. We understand our need for light, but do we appreciate what light does to our emotions? Our brains, when stimulated by light, boost serotonin, which in turn boosts our moods and immune system. When describing neon light, qualities such as bright, exciting, vibrant, colorful, glowing, soft, and soothing come to mind. Neon has been proven to lift your disposition and electrify your emotions.
I’m glad chemists electrified neon, just as neon electrifies us mentally. I hope the next time you see a colorful neon display, your spirits will be lifted, and if you are lucky, you might “hear” the buzz your mind already feels. Neon captured me years ago, and I bought the glow, not the gas. Vitamin NE — what a gas! A noble gas.