The Discovery of Neon

The Discovery of Neon

The year is 1895, and while at the British Museum, Henry Meirs tells Sir William Ramsay about a mineral, cleveite, which gives off a gas which Meirs thinks is nitrogen. So, the Scottish Chemist sends his technician off to the minerals dealer for a sample of cleveite. Two days later, he shows it to be the new inert gas called Helium. The spectrum of Helium was first observed from the light of the sun in 1868 by Sir William Crookes. With an atomic weight of 4, this placed it between Hydrogen and Lithium and in the same group as Argon, which Ramsay had discovered in 1894. Since Ramsay was the first scientist to isolate Helium, he is the one credited today with its founding.

However, now Ramsay was faced with another monumentous problem. He had found the FIRST and the THIRD members of the inert gases, namely Helium and Argon, respectively, but what was there in between them? In his own words, Ramsay said,

Here is a supposed gas, endowed no doubt with inert properties,
and the whole world to find it in.

With the help of student English Chemist Morris W. Travers, Sir Ramsay journeyed on in his quest for that member of the inert gas family. Two years later, on May 30, 1898, they discovered one they weren’t looking for. They named it Krypton, meaning “the hidden one.” Krypton became the fourth member of the inert gas family and is not rock solid, such as is portrayed in Superman shows and books.

Deciding that this inert gas they were pursuing might be hiding in the atmosphere, they decided to use a liquefied air to surround it, which had been introduced by Dewar at the Royal Institution in Piccadilly in 1872. They took bulbs filled with Argon air and cooled them by surrounding them with liquid air boiling under reduced pressure. Then they separated the condensed and the uncondensed portions. With the uncondensed portion of Argon vaporized, they passed electrical charges through it, which gave off a large number of lines in red, several in faint green, some in violet, and a fairly bright yellow, all which were produced while held in a high vacuum state.

Willie, Ramsay’s 13-year-old son, asked, “What are you going to call the new gas? I should like to call it Novum.”

Liking his son’s suggestion, yet wanting to keep it in line with the chemical family suffix of “-on,” Sir Ramsay decided to call it Neon; the Greek word “neos” meaning “new or young.” It is listed as Ne on the Periodic Table of Elements and is listed with the atomic number 10.

On July 12, 1898, through the use of liquid cooled Hydrogen, they found the fifth of the noble gases and named it Xenon, meaning “the stranger.” Thus, they had discovered three members of the inert gas family within only six weeks. Two years later, in 1900, with an assistant named Soddy, Ramsay discovered the sixth rare inert gas and named it Radon.

In 1904, Sir William Ramsay received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry due to the discovery of Argon, Krypton, Neon, and Xenon, and for his determination of their placement in the Periodic Table of Elements.

This brought him into the bright lights of society and, in London, he was considered quite a celebrity. As such, Spy from Vanity Fair, and Henry Tonks, the Head of the UCL’s Slade School of Art, were two cartoonists of the day who enjoyed featuring him in their drawings.

Sir Ramsay received many other medals and decorations, besides his Nobel Medal, all of which he had copies made and the originals melted down in order to give the proceeds to charity.

It was about 1902 when French engineer, chemist and inventor Georges Claude became the first to apply an electrical charge to a sealed tube of neon gas, which caused it to glow bright red. That gave Claude an idea of how to produce light in a different way. He then fashioned the neon tubes in the same manner as ordinary light bulbs. On December 11, 1910, Claude first displayed them in public in Paris. However, no one wanted RED lights in their homes as this had bad connotations on their reputations and characters.

This, however, did not keep Claude from pursuing ways to use his invention. He found that by bending the glass tubes of light he could form letters and make words. This idea intrigued many people and, in 1923, resulted in his neon tubes being used in advertising signs.

George Claude’s neon signs were first brought to the United States by a Packard auto dealership in Los Angeles, California. Earle C. Anthony paid the French company, Claude Neon, $24,000 for two signs that simply read “Packard.”

Neon lighting quickly caught on and flourished in the advertising arena, especially in outdoor advertising. Highly visible, even in daylight, people would stop and stare at the signs and thought they were “liquid fire.”

While neon, in its pure state gives off a reddish-orange color, today it is used to create other colors by introducing other elements such as Argon, Mercury, and Phosphorous. When used in varying amounts almost any color is possible and currently over 150 are now in use.

Neon, in its natural state, is a mixture of three isotopes, and is a non-toxic, non-metallic, odorless and colorless gas, for which there is no known biological role. Besides signage, it is also used to make high-voltage indicators, lightning arrestors, lasers, wavemeter tubes and television tubes. In its liquid form it is commercially available and is used as an important economic cryogenic refrigerant. It has more than 40 times the refrigerant capacity of liquid helium and three times the capacity of liquid hydrogen. Though many attempts have been made at compounding it with other elements such as fluorine, neon as not been found to have a compounding ability.

Much has yet to be learned about this naturally occurring inert gas, and its potential could be well summed up in the phrase, “the sky is the limit.”