Take a road trip along America’s historic Route 66 and you’ll see candy-colored beacons attracting tourists to shops, motels, and roadside attractions. Neon signs still stand as flashy examples of American folk art that hit the height of their popularity in the 1940s. Today, a New York City company calling itself Let There Be Neon keeps the spotlight on neon.
At its 3,500-square-foot shop in lower Manhattan, the sign shop uses art and chemistry in conjunction with detailed craftsmanship and a sense of whimsy to create one-of-a-kind, handmade neon signs. The company has been glowing strong since its founding in 1972 by artist Rudi Stern.
“Neon is a luminous tube that when electricity is energizing the tube, the tube lights up,” says Let There Be Neon owner Jeff Friedman. “Red is the pure color of neon. But we also use argon, which is blue, and by combining the different gases with different glass colors or phosphorus inside the tube, that’s how we get all the different colors. Neon is pure, it’s made by hand, it’s made by glass, it’s recyclable.” Sound simple? Not quite.
It’s not just artistry that lights up a neon sign. It’s science––specifically chemistry. In 1898, Sir William Ramsay, a Scottish chemist, and Morris M. Travers, an English chemist discovered a rare gas in dry air. They named it “neon,” a derivative of the Greek word for “new.” The colorless, odorless gas conducts electricity.
At Let There Be Neon, artists bend glass tubes into different letters, shapes, and designs. An electrode is applied at each tip of the tube. The electrode is made of lead glass with a little metal shell and two wires. The tubes don’t have air in them—only gas. An electrical current enters the tube through the electrode, sending electrons flowing through the gas. The gas atoms glow with color.
Lately, LED signs have been replacing some neon counterparts. LED lights are cheaper to make and cost less to operate than neon ones. They are energy efficient, shatter resistant, and lightweight––unlike neon signs. But neon signs are built to last. Many keep glowing for up to 50 years! And they’re recyclable. They don’t clutter landfills like their plastic competition does.
“Live Life Illuminated,” says the homepage of Let There Be Neon’s website. The company’s slogan is also the bold message of Matthew 5:16. “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”