OPEN: The History of Neon Signs

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

Still no mention of the signs, however. I began to wonder if I would be able to track down the history of these two objects. Then I found the answer to the mystery.

* * *

I decided to see if I could identify "Sperling" and found a newspaper article identifying him as Edward O. Sperling, a technician at the United States Bureau of Standards (NBS - now the National Institutes of Standards and Technology). That led me to a history of NBS by Rexmond Cochrane that unlocked the mystery.

After describing the Bureau's work at the 1904 Exposition, Cochrane wrote a footnote:

"Dr. Nutting's neon signs--two special glass tubes blown by Mr. Sperling in the Bureau shops, one reading 'HELIUM,' the other 'NBS'--resulted from a modification he made in the laboratory instrument known as the Plücker tube and reported in NBS Scientific Paper No. 6, .... Although never made public, the neon phenomenon has long been considered the Bureau's first notable laboratory accomplishment, and the forerunner of modern neon signs and fluorescent lamps. Interview with Dr. William F. Meggers, Aug. 4, 1964."

Here was the answer to how the signs were used in St. Louis and the connection to William Meggers. Perley Nutting displayed the signs at St. Louis to publicize interesting research results. Afterwards he apparently put the signs aside. At some point Meggers, a physicist who went to work at NBS 10 years after the Exposition, must have saved the signs.

Does this mean that we need to rewrite the history of neon signs? Not exactly. There's an old debate about invention. Who's the inventor? The person who first demonstrates something? The person whose work results in something becoming used and useful? In this case we need to put Nutting and Sperling's signs in historical context.

In the 1890s several inert gases were discovered, but isolating them was expensive. The tubes Nutting designed in 1904 could not have been mass-produced economically due to the cost of the gas. In 1907, Georges Claude invented an economical way of liquefying air and separating out the various gases, and then designed a new electrode that gave superior performance in his tubes. He then began selling tubes for lighting.

So while one cannot say that Claude made the first neon sign, it's perfectly acceptable to credit him with inventing neon signs suitable for practical use. His work on inexpensive extraction of inert gases from air and his electrode design laid the foundation for the neon-lamp industry. Nutting and Sperling's signs showed what was possible but literally became historical footnotes.

History is not static and is rarely crystal clear. In many ways the past is as difficult to see as the future. Our knowledge is imperfect and new information can crop up at unexpected moments. Those moments, however, enrich our understanding of the past and make working here at the museum exciting.