Neon in time and space: context is all
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By Nick Smith
20 March 2012
The Neon Boneyard section of the Neon Museum in Las Vegas is where many neon signs go to die
The life of the neon sign for advertising purposes is generally agreed to have started in 1923 outside Packard car dealerships in Los Angeles, California. The popularity of those curving luminescent tubes spread across the USA and Europe in the 1930s and continued, at various times and places throughout the 20th century, to stand for the energy and promise of a booming modern capitalism.
Neon is a chemical element of which trace amounts are found and commercially extracted from the air around us. Neon is abundant in the universe but relatively scarce on earth and because of this scarcity, it took some time after its discovery in 1898 for commercial applications of the luminescent gas to scale. Central to its success, particularly in the signage realm, were two technological practices – the blowing of glass into smooth, narrow, vacuum-sealable tubes and the electrical charging of the contents of those tubes. The combination of these produces the conditions under which the gaseous element neon will, in that familiar brightness, glow.
But the nature of these innovations is also why, in recent times, demand for neon has slowed. Take the manufacturing process to start. The tubes required for the production of neon signs must be custom, handmade for each project by a specialist glass-blower. Today industry and society are in the grips of wide-ranging debates and discussions about the virtues of holding on to such niche analogue skill sets in more sectors than just neon sign production. The printing industry is one example; where compositional type-setters, press and bindery workers used to provide the highly-valued skills upon which printing grew into the dominant global communication medium between the late 15th and early 20th centuries, technological advances, automation and digitisation have slowly and surely replaced the need for artisans and tradespeople with lower-skilled, or indeed, no workers at all.
Interestingly, some people believe that there is a lower limit to how deep into obscurity a technological or skilled practices can descend. In his book What Technology Wants, founder of Wired magazine Kevin Kelly argues that after their inception technologies do not in fact die. Ever. As evidence, he cites continued contemporary production, sale and purchase of such laughably antiquated artefacts as steam engines, oxcarts and hand-flaked, antler-horn-handled, leather-strapped flint knives. "Species in technology, unlike species in biology, almost never go extinct."
Still, after its peak some time in the latter 20th century, the commercial uses for neon began to decline – a trend that continues today for reasons that become clear when neon is compared to newer lighting technologies like LEDs. From a space perspective LED signs can be one-fifth the thickness of comparable neon signs and this has repercussions for both on-site placement as well as for shipping and handling.
The nature of neon's manufacture means that no machine can come along to appreciably increase production efficiencies which in turn means end costs of the product have no real way of declining over time. The same argument applies to neon signage maintenance which requires the same high-cost, high-skilled labourers.
LED is also considered brighter, cheaper and more energy efficient than neon. In the case of the former, LED and other lighting sources tend to perform better at distances and in daylight whereas neon lettering tends to blur at distances and look like it's not even illuminated in direct sunlight. On the latter points, besides its manufacturing and maintenance costs, operational expenses seem to be stagnating in the case of neon whereas its LED counterparts are already using between six and ten times less power in comparable signage applications – a number that will grow as LED continues to garner the R&D attention it has enjoyed for years.
Especially when compared to more modern, reliable and flexible lighting methods, the arguments against neon seem insurmountable. Yet somewhere along most streets, in nearly any town, in almost any developed corner of the world neon signs glow, comfortably and familiarly, in the windows of businesses, bars and storefronts. So from a practical perspective, neon may have declined and may continue to do so. But neon is neon and so long as people and businesses crave its unique look and the feelings that look inspires, neon will keep on glowing.
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