The Discovery of Neon

Neon was named from the Greek word for new, neos, by its discoverer Sir William Ramsey.Sir William’s main passions in life were far eastern and Greek culture and archeology but his fame came from his work in Chemistry. In 1898 Ramsey and his colleague Morris Travers were studying liquid air and trying to identify all the components. Scientists had already discovered that air was made up of 99.96 percent Oxygen, Nitrogen and Argon but now they wanted to know what the remaining 0.04 was.

Ramsey had already identified Argon and Helium. He theorized that these were the first and third members of the group of gases and so knew roughly what he was looking for, but how do you identify something that’s main defining characteristic is that it is inert? He is quoted: “Here is a supposed gas, endowed no doubt with inert properties, and the whole world to find it in.”

On 30 May 1898 they isolated a new gas, but it was Krypton, not the one they were looking for. In June they took some of their isolated Argon and froze it by enclosing it in a glass bubble and surrounding this with liquefied air. They extracted the liquid produced and passed electricity through the vapor that was left. This colored lines, the spectra. These lines were a bright yellow, a faint violet and a faint green and a red color. Further extraction led to a red bulb. The flare of red light produced must have been very dramatic, as Ramsey said,” The blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story, and it was a sight to dwell upon and never to forget.”

Ramsey’s son wanted to call the new gas novum, and this combined with the idea of keeping the family names similar led to the naming of the gas as Neon. On 12 July 1898 Ramsey and his student identified Xenon.

They had identified three members of the inert gas family in six weeks. Ramsey went on to identify Radon in 1900. His work on the inert gases was rewarded with a Noble prize in 1904.

Ramsey’s discoveries turned him into something of a celebrity in London society and he was so well known that he even became the subject of cartoons in the press.

Neon’s main use is in Neon lights but its inertness has led to its use in other fields. It can be used in cryogenics at it reacts with nothing else at all. Neon is a better and less expensive refrigerant than helium. It has no known biological function. Its used in many scientific instruments and tools for detecting electrical current, as well as in television tubes.

It was a French scientist, George Claude that made the first neon bulbs in 1902. Having had little success selling bulbs that glowed bright red to householders in Paris he worked on signs made with bent tubes of glass acting as light bulbs. These were introduced to Paris in 1912 and became popular advertising tools. These were first brought to America by the Packard motor company of California in 1923, but soon became one of the defining symbols of the American dream. By adding Argon, Mercury, and Phosphorous to the tubes in varying proportions there are now over one hundred and fifty colors available.

Liquid crystal technology will probably overtake neon lighting in the coming years but Neon is what made the Vegas strip instantly identifiable throughout the world.