Neon Signs: Production, US and Worldwide Sign Industry, World’s Triple-Crown Neon Sign Winner

In order to discuss how neon signs are made and other related facts let’s first see what neon is. Neon is an element that is found in gaseous form in the atmosphere, but it is rare on Earth. In fact, it ranks fifth on the list of the most abundant elements in the universe. Now that we know where it is found how do we get it into usable form? Since it is gaseous it takes 88,000 pounds of liquefied air. What is liquefied air? It is simply ordinary air that has been liquefied by compression and cooled to extremely low temperatures. The final result is a yield of one pound of neon. Pure neon costs $33. per 100 grams.

It is surprising to note that the theory for neon sign technology had its beginnings in 1675, which was before the age of electricity, when the French astronomer, Jean Picard observed a faint glow in a mercury barometer tube. Shaking the tube resulted in a glow called barometric light. However, the cause of the light(static electricity) had no meaning to scientists at that time. Still, it was investigated. It wasn’t until later years when the principles of electricity were discovered that science could move forward towards the invention of many forms of lighting.

In 1910 Georges Claude made the first neon sign which was installed in a Paris barbershop in 1912. They first came to America in 1923 when Earle Anthony, who owned a Los Angeles auto dealership, bought 2 PACKARD signs. Purchase price, according to different sources, was stated as $2.500., $5,000., or $24,000.

Neon light is created by passing an electric current through glass tubes that are filled with gas which makes these tubes emit light. Neon gas emits red light,. Argon and krypton gases emit other colors. Neon signs are made manually, and when you pause and think of the many shapes and designs any other means, as of this date, would be highly unlikely. However, this hand method has been in use close to 100 years and will probably continue until something better comes along. The tubing is bent and the electrodes are attached resulting in the removal of impurities from the tubing. Then the air is evacuated and gas is added.

The glass tubing is prepared by cutting it into lengths which are cleaned and then placed vertically in a coating machine. The machine then blows a liquid phosphor suspension upwards into the tube and then lets it drain back out the bottom. Next, the tubes are placed vertically in an oven to dry the coating. Color tints are applied in a like manner.

So far in the manufacturing process the machines have done all the work. But now the real work is just beginning. It is time for man to do what machines cannot do, and that is to bend and shape the tubing. This is what gives neon signs their ability to be unique.

A heat-resistant sheet of asbestos is used on which to lay the full design of the sign. A variety of gas burners is used to carefully heat and soften the glass tubing. To make the curves in round letters and to produce the sweeping curves required for script gas-fired ribbon burners 24 “(61 cm) or longer are used. Shorter lengths are heated by smaller hand torches. The tubing is bent by hand using the asbestos template as a guide. Amazingly, the tube handlers don’t wear protective gloves. The reason is that they must be able to feel the heat transfer and the degree of softening in the glass to determine the right moment to make the bend. This is what the whole process is based upon because a mistake could be very costly in terms of time and money. At this crucial moment the softened tubing must not be allowed to collapse so the tube bender attaches a short length of flexible hose (called blow hose) to one end. By the tube bender gently blowing into the hose the air causes the still soft glass tubing back to its original diameter.

If tube diameter is restricted it cannot operate properly and a whole step is wasted. Since it is fragile, several sections of glass tubing are used in most large neon signs. A working limit for each section is a length of from 8-10 feet (2.4-3.1m).Each section is made by heating two lengths of tubing and splicing them together. After forming the shape of the lettering or design for a section an electrode is heated and fused into each side of the tubing. Then, a small port, or tabulation is added. This allows the tubing to be evacuated by a vacuum pump. Sometimes this tabulation port may be part of one of the electrodes, and at other times it could be a separate piece joined to the tubing.

The fourth step is called bombarding the tubing. This removes any impurities from the glass, phosphors, and electrodes. A phosphor is a substance that exhibits the phenomenon of phosphorescence(sustained glowing after the exposure to energized particles such as electrons or ultraviolet photons(in physics it is an elementary particle…and the basic “unit” of light and all other forms of electromagnetic radiation). To begin with, the air inside the tubing is evacuated. Dry air is allowed back into the tubing after the vacuum reaches a certain level until the pressure is in the range of 0.02-0.04 “(0.5-1.0mm of mercury). Longer tubing may require lower pressure. The electrodes are connected to a very high-current transformer. For the bombarding process, tubing length that may normally be processed at a rate of 30 mill amperes, 400-750 mill amperes may be used. The mill ampere rate depends on the length of the tubing used. The glass is heated to about 420 degrees F by the high current which heats the metal electrode to about 1400 degrees F (760 degrees C). The impurities are forced out of the materials by this heating, and they are carried out of the system by the vacuum pump.

Filling the tube follows. This is done by inserting gas under low pressure after the tube has cooled, This prevents breakage of the tube. To assure that the sign operates properly and has a long life the gas must be free of impurities. The normal pressure used to fill a tube that is 0.6 ” (15mm) in diameter is about 0.5 inches(12mm) of mercury. To complete this step the tabulation port is heated and sealed off.

Then, the finished, gas-filled, tubing has to be aged. This is sometimes called ‘burning in the tube”. This is done so that the gas in the tube can stabilize and operate properly. A transformer, usually one that is rated slightly above the normal operating current, is attached to the electrodes. When neon is used full illumination should occur in the tube within 15 minutes. Argon may take up to a few hours to reach full illumination. In instances that require a small amount of mercury to be added to an argon tube a droplet was first placed into the tabulation port prior to its being sealed. In order to coat the electrodes after the aging process the droplet is rolled from one end to the other. Should there be a flicker in the glass or a hot spot on the tube, or any other problem require the tube to be opened and repeating the bombarding and filling processes.

What gives neon signs their colors? Different gases are used to produce colors in neon signs. Neon produces red. Helium produces orange. Argon produces lavender. Krypton produces gray. Xenon produces gray or blue. Different hues are created by adding mixed gases and elements to a neon light. If powders are baked into the inside walls of the glass tubes the colors and shades of the finished neon sign are modified. Using colored glass tubing is another method. Today, there are relatively few products which enjoy worldwide usage on such a large scale that are made manually. A well-built and properly installed neon sign can last up to 30,000 hours.

Throughout this article the terms “neon signs” and “illuminated signs” are used interchangeably. Both terms refer to the same exact thing’

Since illuminated signs are used worldwide they are in high demand and so they are made in other countries. Although the method of manufacturing them is basically the same everywhere the quality and performance of signs not made in the US may not be equal to our signs. The list of sign companies in other places and countries, as appears below is based on information dated December 2010. Due to the facts that international reporting methods are sometimes in error, and that an accurate account is not always possible the word “about” is used in this survey. We have seen what the US sign industry is like let us look at some other countries and places around the world and see what they do.

Please remember that the information on this list is the most accurate available according to reliable sources. Because of language barriers and other problems involved in dealing with other countries it is difficult to gather information about foreign sign manufacturers. Businesses come and go, methods and standards of reporting vary, and there are a number of other factors involved. However, for our purposes we will consider the list as a guide so that we can see some other places where the neon sign industry has taken root. Of course, illuminated signs are made in many other places in the world, but there are no figures available on most of these places. In fact, no matter what language is used the idea is to advertise a product or service. When placed on a business or in a store window they are an invitation to enter. They could be flashing or showing a company logo. Because many of today’s corporations are international their signs appear all over the world.

As has been stated each one of these figures is prefaced by the word “about”

China leads the list with 1,298 followed by Canada with 570, Italy with 376, the United Kingdom with 319, Germany with 231, France with 137, Korea with 122, and Belgium with 105. The Netherlands and Spain each have 58. India has 43 while Norway and Sweden each have 22. Austria, Hong Kong and Indonesia show 12 each. Finland, Russia and the United Arab Emerites each show 11. Australia lists 8razil has 6, and Singapore has 7. Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, and Turkey all have 2. At the bottom of the list are Croatia, Ghana, and Japan with one each. It is interesting to note that Bermuda, as of this writing, does not allow neon signs, billboards, or golden arches.

Times Square and The Las Vegas Strip are America’s neon showcases. In other neon signages Tokyo has its Ginza and Shibuya. Osaka has Du Bon bun, which is the world’s largest shopping street that provided the inspiration for Blade Runner. There are also Nanjinj Road in Shanghai and Soi Cowboy in Bangkok(which was named after an American who opened a go-go bar there in the 1970’s).

The fact of the matter is that when it comes to illuminated signs let us see who is number one. No, we are not talking about what country has the most number of companies. When it comes to world class neon signs the US is the Triple-Crown winner. This sign is the world’s largest, the world’s tallest, and the world’s most expensive neon sign. How is that you say? Since we always do things in a big way we have the world’s largest neon sign. Where is it? No, New York City is not the answer because there is no place to put it there. Where else is there? There is only one place that has both the space and the financial capability to pay for this sign and that is Las Vegas. It is owned by the Hilton Hotel Corporation and placed on the property of its biggest hotel.

It has a total surface area of over 77,000 square feet on each side. It is the world’s tallest free-standing sign at 279 feet. In fact, at a cost of about $9 million it is easily the world’s most expensive neon sign. It was completed in 1998 by the MagneTek Company of Las Vegas. It’s the largest, the tallest free-standing, most expensive neon sign in the world and is seen each year by millions of visitors.

We hope that your visit has been enjoyable, as well as informative.