The Discovery of Neon

The discovery of Neon by Sir William Ramsay and Morris Travers in 1898 was the culmination of years of scientific research with the purpose of determining the constituents of air. It had already been proven that air consisted mainly of nitrogen and oxygen. By means of fractional distillation of liquefied air Ramsay was able to identify the presence of Argon and then Helium. However, he was convinced that there was still one more element present in air yet to be identified.

The problem, of course, was made more difficult to solve because of the inert nature of Neon. It is an odorless, colorless gas that is present only in minute quantities (about 1 part to 65,000) and is therefore very difficult to isolate. Keen to progress Ramsay and Travers ploughed on; next their work led them to discover Krypton. It wasn’t what they were expecting though it did prove they were working along the right lines.

The pair resumed looking at the properties of Argon; they froze a quantity of Argon which they surrounded with liquefied air. Then they passed an electrical charge through the vapor that was produced and found that it produced a series of colored lines. With increased extraction, the vapor glowed a brilliant red color. They had found what they were looking for!

Initially it was to be called “Novum” but this was short-lived., Ramsay insisted that the name should follow those of the other members of the Group 0 elements and should be “Neon” from the Greek “neos” – new. However, Ramsay’s work was not yet done. He subsequently discovered Xenon and Radon, more members of the group of inert gases, work for which he was later awarded a Nobel Prize in 1904.

It was not until around 1910, however, that the properties we most associate with Neon were first exploited for commercial use. A French chemist had manufactured neon light bulbs but nobody wanted bulbs that glowed red. Unperturbed, he then developed signs made from tubes that he twisted into different shapes. The first ones appeared as advertising signs in Paris. As more research was done, it was discovered that by adding small amounts of other elements, the color of the light would alter as the electrical charge passed through the tubes.

Today we take Neon signs for granted but if it was not for the determination of Ramsay and Travers who were certain that there was more to be discovered our cities might look very different.