January 19 – Bright future

Factismal: Georges Claude was awarded the patent for the neon tube in 1915.

If you wanted light in 1915, you had only a few choices. If you lived in the country, you probably used a kerosene oil lamp or candle as electricity wasn’t widely available. If you lived in the city, you might use a lightbulb or bottled acetylene. But early lightbulbs gave off only enough light to illuminate a room and acetylene had a nasty tendency to explode; what if you wanted to light up a sign or building? Unless you wanted to pay for an expensive and easily-damaged searchlight, you were out of luck.

That was, until Georges Claude came along. Claude was already a rich industrialist who made millions from his new process for liquifying air, which was used to provide nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide for various industries. But the amount of neon and other gases in the air that was thrown away because it had no use frustrated him. Fortunately, he was a familiar with recent work in cathode tubes that showed how a gas would glow if a current was applied to it. Claude put that idea together with the neon gas that was a byproduct of his air liquefaction and came up with one of the brightest ideas ever.

Claude showed that not only could you generate light, but you could do it in a tube that had almost any shape you wanted. And because Claude included a step for purifying the gas so that only one lement at a time was included in the tube, the light his neon lights generated was pure and bright instead of being muddy and dim like that of the Geissler tubes that had amused an earlier generation. Claude also improved the light’s electrical system so that the signs made using his process were long-lasting and economical. As a result, his lights soon became the sign of progress.

By using different elements, Claude was able to make “neon” signs of different colors. Neon gave the familiar and popular (because it was inexpensive) orange glow. Blue light came from mercury gas, while helium glowed as yellow as the sun for which it was named. Within a decade, no downtown was complete without neon signs and Times Square was world-famous for the extent of its signs.

Unfortunately, Claude was soon seduced by extremists in France and supported the Vichy government during World War II. As a result, he was stripped of all of his honors and imprisoned for five years. In the end, Claude wasn’t as bright as his invention.

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