OPEN: The History of Neon Signs

The story behind two mysterious signs in the Smithsonian's collection complicates the provenance of the invention.

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Smithsonian Institution

Editor's note: This post combines a two-post series originally published on the National Museum of American History's "O Say Can You See?" blog and is republished here with permission.

Part of the fun of doing history here at the National Museum of American History is finding mysteries. Sometimes the mystery is a strange looking object that no one can identify. At other times the object's identity is obvious, but our information conflicts with current historical understanding. Either way, a mystery can provide an opportunity to revise and improve our knowledge of the past.

I recently found such a mystery in the Electricity Collections. We have two small neon-type signs -- one reads "NBS" and the other, "Helium." Handwritten paper labels on each sign contained the following information: "Luminous Sign Designed by P. G. Nutting, Made by Sperling - National Bureau of Standards, Exhibited at St. Louis Exposition 1904." The label on the "NBS" sign also noted that it "contained neon gas. Bulb cracked - broken terminal, [March] 1958."

The history of neon tubes seemed rather straight-forward. They are descended from the work of physicist Julius Plücker and glass-blower Heinrich Geissler, who devised glowing glass tubes in Germany in the 1850s. These Geissler tubes were used for laboratory purposes and as mining lamps in France. Even Jules Verne wrote about them. While Geissler tubes contained air, other inventors developed lamps that used different gases. For example, D. McFarlan Moore sold carbon-dioxide tubes and signs in the 1890s, and Peter Cooper Hewitt developed mercury-vapor lamps at that time. As for neon signs, I understood them to be the work of French inventor Georges Claude, who introduced them in 1910.

The handwritten labels I found with the two signs posed a problem. Here were two signs from the United States Bureau of Standards (NBS, now known as the National Institutes of Standards and Technology) that supposedly predated Claude's invention by six years. Some research seemed in order.

I looked first in the signs' accession file (the official file containing the legal forms, condition reports and other documents pertaining to the donation). The signs came to the museum in 1977 along with a large group of materials from the estate of Edith R. Meggers of Washington, D.C. She and her husband, William F. Meggers, created a "family museum" containing a broad range of objects. No specific information about the signs was in the file. The two handwritten paper labels, however, are probably from their "museum."

An Internet search turned up additional information. A trade journal account of the 1904 St. Louis Exposition (also called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition) described NBS' participation but did not mention the signs. The name Nutting appeared in several NBS publications from that era, however. Perley Gilman Nutting was an NBS scientist who investigated electrical discharges through gases. He later became the first president of the Optical Society of America.

Presented by

Hal Wallace is associate curator of the Electricity Collections at the National Museum of American History.

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