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Neon: A Brief History

A few scientists run an electric current through a sealed glass tube, and the next thing you know, the Pepsi-Cola sign is lighting up the East River. How we got there.

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Mid 1800s
Light From Nothing
German glassblower and physicist Heinrich Geissler creates sealed glass tubes with two electrodes; the electric current makes gases glow.


1898
Meet the New Gas
British scientists Sir William Ramsay and Morris Travers liquefy air to isolate its various parts; they name one neon, from the Greek for new.

December 1910
Bring It Home
French engineer Georges Claude makes a lamp from an electrified tube of neon glass.

January 19, 1915
The First Car Light
Claude begins selling his tubes to U.S. companies; the Packard car dealership in Los Angeles is one of the first to buy.


The Fifties
Artkraft Strauss’ neon domination of Times Square reaches its apex and helps form the city’s incandescent, insomniac identity. A May 2006 auction of signs from Artkraft’s archives brings in over $100,000.


1966
Never Mind the Soup Cans
Pop-culture prophet Andy Warhol silk-screens a pink neon cow.


1972
Loud and Clear
Irony or a declaration of status? Big Star’s “#1 Record” cover is a glowing yellow star.

The Seventies
The Bar in the Basement
Nothing said “my parents are cool” like an Anheuser-Busch sign above the basement bar.

Mid-Eighties
Colors That Do Not Exist in Nature
As punk rock trickles down, colors that used to signal Hazard! become the palette of suburban American teen rebellion, popping up in shoes, makeup, hair bows, and torn T-shirts.


1987
Neon-Lit Noir
In The Neon Rain, New Orleans detective Dave Robicheaux battles government officials, drug kingpins, and the mob while trying to solve the murder of a prostitute.


1990
Twenty-Four-Hour Party People
All across England, and later the world, warehouses are illuminated by glow sticks as Ecstasy-fueled kids dance to Happy Mondays.


2007
New Heights
Reebok introduces the green-neon-trimmed Court Victory Pump sneaker, which glows in the dark (good for shooting hoops in a pitch-black gym). PF Flyers has neon Keds-like sneakers for those without an athletic bone in their bodies.


September 2007
You Wear It Where?
Neon migrates to hair and faces at fashion shows for Louis Vuitton, Anna Sui, and Marc Jacobs. Make Up For Ever and M.A.C add neon shadows to their collections.


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