Neon lights have dazzled humankind for years. The glow from these devices attracts people into many establishments. The secret that many would be surprised to know about “neon” lights is that most of these contain gases other than neon. Neon has a very distinct color that it emits when heated, and to achieve the various colors associated with their namesake takes the combination of other gases, such as argon and krypton. Neon belongs to an elite family of elements called the noble, or inert, gases. These gases have full valence electron shells, and therefore do not tend to form compounds with other elements. Six of these gases are now known today, but what is the story behind the one whose name comes from the Greek word for “new”?
In the late 1890s, Sir William Ramsay, a Scottish chemist, isolated helium (in 1894) and discovered argon (in 1895), the first and third elements in the noble gas family of elements. This presented him with a predicament. There must be a similar, intermediate gas that belonged to this family. As Ramsay himself said, “here is a supposed gas, endowed no doubt with inert properties, and the whole world to find it in.” He couldn’t have known how close he was to the truth although neon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe, it only comprises a mere 0.0018% of the earth’s atmosphere.
At this time, being able to detect small amounts of gases was not an easy feat. The equipment was extremely lacking and not able to capture the small quantities needed. Necessity breeds invention, and spectroscopy was born. Spectroscopy is the method that analyzes the light produced by an element when it is heated. The spectrum of light produced by each element is unique, similar to a fingerprint, and consists of several different lines of specific color.
Ramsay was joined by a British chemist, Morris Travers, in working with liquefied air in an attempt to find this elusive gas. They discovered yet another family member, krypton, the fourth in the series, in 1898, but still not the second element in the family. They continued to work, and solidified argon and surrounded it with liquid air at a reduced pressure. When the argon began to vaporize, they collected the first of the vapors to come off. The spectrum of light that this gas emitted had many lines in red, some in green, and some in violet. A strong yellow line was bright and present in a vacuum.
These were new spectral lines that the pair had not seen before, indicating that they had found a new element. They described their discovery in the following way: “The blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story, and it was a sight to dwell upon and never to forget. It was worth the struggle of the previous two years; and all the difficulties yet to be overcome before the research was finished. The undiscovered gas had come to light in a manner which was no less than dramatic. For the moment, the actual spectrum of the gas did not matter in the least, for nothing in the world gave a glow such as we had seen.”
The mystery gas had been discovered. So what to name it? Ramsay’s son, Willie, suggested “novum”, Latin for “new.” Ramsay liked this suggestion, but settled upon neon, from the Greek “neos”, also meaning new. This was to keep with the trend of utilizing the suffix “-on” in the naming of the other noble gases. A few weeks later, they discovered the fifth family member, xenon.
In recognition of his efforts, Ramsay was awarded the 1904 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of four of the six known noble gases (neon, argon, krypton, and xenon).