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Unlike incandescent bulbs, which use electricity to heat a filament until it glows, neon lights use electricity to produce light directly. How is this done? By energizing atoms of gas or vapor so that they give off light. That is why neon lights are also sometimes known as electric discharge or vapor lights.
In 1675, the neon lighting phenomenon was discovered somewhat by mistake by French astronomer Jean Picard, who noticed that a mercury barometer tube would give off a bit of light if it was shaken up. Why did this happen? When the tube was shaken, it produced static electricity which charged the mercury vapor atoms in the tube, causing them to produce light.
Nearly two centuries later, when this concept was better understood, German glassblower Heinrich Geissler purposely produced neon light when he filled a glass tube with gas and gave it an electrical charge. Later, it was shown that neon light could be made in many different colors depending upon the type of gas used in the tube. For example, mercury gas gives off blue light, while carbon dioxide gives off white light, helium gas gives off gold light, and neon gas gives off red light.
The first neon tube light was made by Frenchman George Claude in 1910, while the first neon light used to advertise was a sign made for Paris' Palace Hairdresser. The first neon sign in America, which cost $24,000, was used to advertise the Packard auto dealership in Los Angeles.
Today, neon lighting, also called cold cathode lighting, is most often seen in commercial signs. It is expensive, and it operates at a very high voltage. Neon lighting is rarely used in homes, although it is sometimes placed behind moldings to produce interesting architectural effects.
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