A Brief History
On December 3, 1910, the Paris Motor Show was the stage for the public introduction of modern neon lighting, that ubiquitous and colorful signage we see everywhere from the local gas station to the local beverage store to the glittering streets of Las Vegas. (First held in 1898, the Paris Motor Show is scheduled by the Organisation Internationale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles and is to this day one of the great motor vehicle shows in the world. As of this year, 2018, it is now called Mondial Paris Motor Show.) The man introducing neon lighting to the world was Georges Claude, sometimes referred to as “The Edison of France.”
Claude was born in Paris in 1870, just in time for the wide variety of electrical inventions and applications to make their appearances in the commercial and scientific world. A genius scholar, Claude invented a technique for using acetylene as a lamp fuel to be stored in a safer manner (dissolved in acetone) and developed a process for the liquefaction (changing from a gas to a liquid) of air. The process he developed enabled other gases to be liquified, a process we use in many scientific and commercial applications today. His liquefaction process alone made him a successful businessman.
Claude expanded on the work of Daniel McFarlan Moore, an American electrical engineer that had developed a nitrogen based electrical tube lamp. (Prior to Moore, a German named Johann Heinrich Geissler had invented the Geissler Tube, a crude sort of gas tube lamp that showed the possibility of the idea.) Using the Neon gas that was a byproduct of his air liquifying business, Claude invented the neon tube lamp that we see everywhere today. The color of pure neon lighting is a shade of red, but the exact gas content can be altered to create many different colors of lights. Claude perfected the technique of using larger and longer tubes passing electricity through the gasses in the tubes to create a much more usable light than previous “Moore lamps.” Claude patented his invention in 1910, including the process by which he had perfected the purification of the inert gasses used in the lamps as well as the creation of perfectly sealed glass tubes. The Moore lamp type of gas filled tube lamp continuously lost gases which had to be replenished, resulting in a sputtering, inconsistent light. Claude’s lights went on and stayed on, bright and colorful.
Although generically called “neon lights,” the gas filled tube lamps we are familiar with use a variety of gasses, such as neon, argon and mercury vapor, to create the desired colors. Introduced by Claude to US markets in 1923, Claude’s company had a profitable business monopoly on neon lighting for the next decade plus. His eye catching signs were notable for being clearly seen even in daylight, earning the nickname “liquid fire.”
Unfortunately, Georges Claude did not have the moral aptitude to match his inventive genius, and during the German occupation of France during World War II Claude was a willing collaborator, a faux pas not to be overlooked by his countrymen when France was liberated. Arrested, tried and convicted of collaboration, Claude spent 5 years in prison for his crime against France. (He had been accused of helping develop the V-1 cruise missile but was exonerated.) Claude was stripped of his membership in the French Academy of Sciences. Still, Claude had made his fortune and though he lost much of it while in prison, he had enough to survive on, having lived until 1960 when he died at the age of 89.
The work of Georges Claude also gave rise to another important advance in electric lighting, that of the fluorescent lamp. In 1926, Frenchman Jacques Risler used Claude’s neon lamp in conjunction with a glass tube lined with a phosphorescent coating which produced fluorescent lighting more or less as we know it. The gas used in such lights is mercury vapor, a substance inventors had been trying to use in electric lights for the preceding few decades, including Edison and Tesla. American electrical engineer Peter Cooper Hewitt patented the mercury vapor lamp in 1901, but the mercury vapor lamp did not see widespread use until the 1930s. Fluorescent lighting became commercially important in the 1930’s when General Electric Ltd. (a British company) created a useful type of fluorescent light for industrial lighting, and the General Electric Company (at the time of Cleveland, Ohio) in turn produced and sold a similar product in the United States.
Georges Claude may have ended his life in disgrace, but his inventions have certainly made life better for millions of people. Chances are pretty good that you see a neon light every time you leave your house!
Question for students (and subscribers): Did you ever hear of Georges Claude? Do you personally own any neon lighting signs in your own house? Should French collaborators have been prosecuted and jailed after World War II? Have you ever seen a car or truck with the neon lights underneath that make the vehicle appear to be floating on light? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Claude, Georges. Liquid air, oxygen, nitrogen. Amazon Digital Services, 2014.
Ribbat, Christoph. Flickering Light: A History of Neon. Reaktion Books, 2013.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Andy Eick of Piccadilly Circus, London, 1962, is a retouched picture, which means that it has been digitally altered from its original version. Modifications: Brightened and grey balance adjusted and colour balance in blue areas adjusted, saturation of non-blue colours increased slightly, cropped (this bit only refers to earlier versions). The original can be viewed here: Picadilly circus in london.jpg. Modifications made by Ubcule. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.