Why is neon better?
People the world over adore neon, and below are some reasons why it's better than any other form of lit signage:
On a visceral level, a neon sign has allure. Neon is like a naked bolt of lightning frozen in time, and the glow it gives off is nothing short of magical. The quality of light is unmatched in its beauty and its ability to stir the soul.
Created entirely by hand, neon signs are made of glass tubes that are shaped over an open flame by highly skilled “tube-benders.” Neon is a noble gas, and just one of the five gases that are pumped into these glass tubes and ignited to manifest these colorful, uniquely bright, electric designs. The gas glows when a charge is introduced into the vacuum-sealed tube, which causes excited atoms, ions, and electrons to smash into each other, resulting in the release of light-emitting photons. Benders use different gases combined with clear or color-coated glass tubes to produce different colors when the sign is lit. In clear tubes of neon, you can actually see the gas and are witnessing this reaction.
Cities are vibrant places anchored in history, and historic neon signs connect us to the past in a vitally vibrant way that cannot be replicated with alternative light sources. One reasons people love cities is because this is where evidence of history is so apparent. Old signs are a glowing signal from the past, and make up an essential part of a vibrant, interesting city. While Los Angeles and San Francisco currently take top prize for quantity, Portland is home to a unique collection of vintage neon signs that define the city’s landscape and evoke unique Northwest idiosyncrasies. Reinforcement of these images gives a great boost to city pride and enriches tourism.
It might surprise you to learn that neon signs are actually a very green technology. All the parts of the sign — the glass, electrodes, transformers, wiring, and sheet metal — are reusable, recyclable, and relatively non-toxic. At the time neon signs were introduced over 100 years ago, they were exponentially more efficient than incandescent bulbs, and were marketed as a money saver due to the fraction of electricity it took to power the new signs. Today, LEDs have surpassed neon signs in efficiency, but LEDs are not a green technology, nor do they have the longevity or simplicity of a neon sign. (Nor the beauty.)
Built to last.
Many old neon signs can last over 70 years and stay lit with the regular restoration and maintenance. Neon signs are more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs, and can last decades longer than signs composed of plastic panels and/or LEDs. Neon sign-making is also exceedingly more “green” than LED lighting. While LEDs are cheaper to manufacture, they don’t have a long life, and the parts are not recyclable. Each solid component of a neon sign is durable, reusable, and recyclable.
An Artisan Craft.
Neons signs are made essentially the same way today as they were in the 1920s: by hand. Neon sign making is a specialized, highly skilled craft that takes several years to master, and is often passed down through families of neon benders. You can see the hand-shaped uniqueness in each design. This is a an increasingly rare feature in our urban environments, which today are dominated by mass-manufactured signs.
Neon is unmatched in it’s brightness and legibility from long distances of many miles away.
Neon signs illuminate sidewalks at night which make cities safer.