Neon signs have been iconic in America since the 1920’s and are still common today. In this lesson, we will find out how neon was discovered and why it has been so important to us.

Discovery

Many of us have seen Neon signs, as they are found in pretty much every city in the world. You can see from the photograph onscreen of Times Square in New York that it is completely covered in neon signs that draw the eyes of passersby. But where did neon come from?

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Photographic of Neon signs in Times Square

Neon was originally discovered by British chemists Sir William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers in 1898. The scientists were studying liquid air by chilling a sample of air until it became a liquid, then warming the liquid up and collecting the gases as they boiled off. Neon was the second of three new gases to be discovered by the pair, the first being krypton and the third xenon. It was not long after this discovery that neon found an important use in our lives.

What is Neon?

Neon is a chemical element with the symbol Ne and atomic number 10. Neon is a colorless, odorless inert gas. It is in the group called Noble gases in the periodic table.

Neon is a noble gas and is on the far right of the periodic table. It is element number 10.
Neon and its place in the Periodic Table

Both the melting point of neon at -415.46 ;F (-248.59 ;C) and boiling point at -410.94 ;F (-246.08 ;C) are extremely low. It has the smallest liquid range of any element (2.6 ;C). Neon is also the least reactive of the noble gases, which makes it the least reactive of all the chemical elements in the periodic table.

Neon is the fifth most abundant chemical element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, oxygen, and carbon. However, it is still a rare gas in Earth’s atmosphere, making up just 0.0018%. In fact, if you could gather all the neon from the rooms in an American family home, you would get just 2 gallons (10 liters) of neon gas. Because neon is so rare in our atmosphere both neon gas and liquid neon are relatively expensive, costing around $33 per 100 g. Compare this to oxygen, which is just 30 cents for the same amount!

How is Neon Used?

The first neon sign was created more than 100 years ago, in 1912. A barbershop in Paris became the first commercial establishment to use a neon advertising sign. It was developed by a famous French inventor, Georges Claude, whose company, Claude Neon, successfully produced signs for the next 20 years.

Neon signs were a huge success, and in 1923 the signs were first introduced to the U.S. when a Los Angeles Packard car dealership installed two large neon signs they bought for $24,000.

Despite the high cost of neon, it is used in a variety of ways in our modern world:

Advertising signs – Neon gas emits a brilliant red-orange color when charged with electricity. While neon accounts for the bright reddish-orange light in advertising signs, all other colors are generated by other noble gases or by colors of fluorescent lighting (though they are still referred to as neon signs). Las Vegas holds the record for the World’s largest neon sign. The free standing Las Vegas Hilton sign in front of the hotel on Paradise Avenue is the largest freestanding sign in the world. At 279 feet tall, the sign boasts over six miles of neon and fluorescent lights, a total surface area of more than 70,000 square feet, and it is 40 feet thick.

TV Tubes – Next time you are watching an old television set, you’ll know that neon is one of the elements inside the TV tube. The glass screen goes way back into the television set unlike the flat screen TVs of today.

Old TV sets contain neon tubes
Photograph of 1950s TV set containing neon tubes

Cryogenic Refrigerants – Scientists use neon in cryogenics. Cryogenics is the freezing of something very quickly. When neon gets very cold it becomes a liquid, and because neon is very non-reactive it is a good liquid to use. It does not combine with any of the other elements used in cryogenics.

Lasers – Neon is commonly used in lasers particularly in medical applications.

Lesson Summary

Neon is a chemical element with the symbol Ne and atomic number 10. It was discovered in 1898 and is a noble gas. It is found in air but only 0.0018% of air is neon. Neon has a variety of uses, including advertising signs, lasers and in cryogenic refrigerants.