Let There Be Neon


One hundred years ago today, Georges Claude, a French engineer, was granted a U.S. patent for his development of “certain new and useful Improvements in Systems of Illuminating by Luminescent Tubes.” Claude’s invention captured and commercialized a gas that is just a little younger than the universe but that humans didn’t discover until 1898. In other words, Claude flipped the switch on the first neon sign.

By the mid-1920s, Manhattan’s Broadway blazed with insignia of glowing gases, on which Claude Neon Lights, Inc., held a virtual monopoly thanks to that patent. A 1927 New York Times article extolled the “kaleidoscopic mysteries … along the friendly sidewalks” of the city, among them the “Eskimo cracking his whip, the kitten playing with a spool of silk, the pencil that writes eternally with its liquid fire.” The writer concludes by musing about a world that “still marvels at the signs of yesterday and silently wonders what the signs of tomorrow will be.”

Tomorrow is here, and on New York’s midtown byways the neon advertisement has been usurped by blaring LED billboards and other types of cheaper, mass-producible signage. Georges Claude’s cutting-edge technology is now a dying handicraft. “There’s not many people that can do neon,” Gasper Ingui, the founder of Artistic Neon, explains in the documentary film Gasper and Son. It “takes a long time to learn,” requiring years of apprenticeship. But because custom neon signs can be individualized and are so evocative of the urban past, they are still popular with the type of mom-and-pop operation that is itself a dying breed.

Throughout recorded history, humans have pitted light against darkness. The Bible claims it was always so. The third verse of the Book of Genesis states that on the world’s first day, “God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, and it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.” Pythagoras’s Table of Opposites from the sixth century B.C. includes such pairings as light vs. darkness, good vs. evil and straight vs. crooked. When it comes to urban signage, light is seen as the antidote to humanity’s seamy underside. The 1850 guidebook New York by Gas-Light promises to “penetrate beneath the thick veil of night and lay bare the fearful mysteries of darkness in the metropolis.”

Blue wavelengths, such as emanate from tablets, smartphones and energy-efficient lighting, are the most deleterious to human health.

But light, in the hands of humans, has its dark side too. One of the CIA’s post-9/11 enhanced interrogation techniques involves subjecting detainees to sleep deprivation with the use of loud music and unrelenting brightness. And yet most of the ill effects we cause by illuminating the planet are unintentional. The International Dark Sky Association lists many adverse effects of light pollution, ranging from its obscuring of the stars in the sky to its disruption of the routines of nocturnal animals and the navigation of migrating birds. Humans too suffer, as nighttime light exposure is linked to hormonal shifts, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

connects_side_neonMore insidious than Times Square’s flashing, flickering jumboscreens, and far less impressive than the 1927 movie marquee with letters “four times as tall as the tallest man,” are the pocket advertising machines everyone today clutches as if to a lifeline: smartphones. The city that never sleeps is now inside every hand. But what neon made grand and eye-popping, phones make cramped and questionably squint-worthy. And blue wavelengths, such as emanate from tablets, smartphones and energy-efficient lighting, are the most deleterious to human health. The internet’s ultimate impact on our individuality—as it constantly beckons, endlessly pulling information from us and subjecting us to the eternal hard sell—is a very dark unknown.

Clark Strand, author of the book Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age (April 2015), believes that up until very recently “night was the natural corrective to that most persistent of all illusions: that human progress is the reason for the world.” Strand concedes that “advances in science, industry, medicine and nearly every other area of human enterprise resulted from the influx of light,” but his concern is for the loss of darkness. For what we have lost, it seems, is what it allowed us: a period to unplug, unwind and regenerate. In its gentle embrace we become expansive, open to human contact, to imaginative exploration, to contemplation of the silvery moon, the stars and beyond.

Early in humankind, when fire became a usable technology, light was largely for the good, giving warmth and nighttime visibility and expanding our dietary options. And it’s easy to see a handsome neon bar sign, beckoning the traveler into a place of warmth, nourishment and camaraderie, as kin to the communal fire. But today’s luminous advertisement of choice, the smartphone, sheds a comparatively wan, lonely glow.

Photo courtesy of ell-r-brown/Flickr