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Book Summary: How We Got to Now

Author: Steven Johnson

Substory: Neon

While neon is technically considered one of the “rare gases,” it is actually ubiquitous in the earth’s atmosphere, just in very small quantities. Each time you take a breath, you are inhaling a tiny amount of neon, mixed in with all the nitrogen and oxygen that saturate breathable air. In the first years of the twentieth century, a French scientist named Georges Claude created a system for liquefying air, which enabled the production of large quantities of liquid nitrogen and oxygen. Processing these elements at industrial scale created an intriguing waste product: neon. Even though neon appears as only one part per 66,000 in ordinary air, Claude’s apparatus could produce one hundred liters of neon in a day’s work.

With so much neon lying around, Claude decided to see if it was good for anything, and so in proper mad-scientist fashion, he isolated the gas and passed an electrical current through it. Exposed to an electric charge, the gas glowed a vivid shade of red. (The technical term for this process is ionization.) Further experiments revealed that other rare gases such as argon and mercury vapor would produce different colors when electrified, and they were more than five times brighter than conventional incandescent light. Claude quickly patented his neon lights, and set up a display showcasing the invention in front of the Grand Palais in Paris. When demand surged for his product, he established a franchise business for his innovation, not unlike the model employed by McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken years later, and neon lights began to spread across the urban landscapes of Europe and the United States.

In the early 1920s, the electric glow of neon found its way to Tom Young, a British immigrant living in Utah who had started a small business hand-lettering signs. Young recognized that neon could be used for more than just colored light; with the gas enclosed in glass tubes, neon signs could spell out words much more easily than collections of lightbulbs. Licensing Claude’s invention, he set up a new business covering the American Southwest. Young realized that the soon-to-be-completed Hoover Dam would bring a vast new source of electricity to the desert, providing a current that could ionize an entire city of neon lights. He formed a new venture, the Young Electric Sign Company, or YESCO. Before long, he found himself building a sign for a new casino and hotel, The Boulders, that was opening in an obscure Nevada town named Las Vegas.

It was a chance collision—a new technology from France finding its way to a sign letterer in Utah—that would create one of the most iconic of twentieth-century urban experiences. Neon advertisements would become a defining feature of big-city centers around the world—think Times Square or Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing. But no city embraced neon with the same unchecked enthusiasm that Las Vegas did, and most of those neon extravaganzas were designed, erected, and maintained by YESCO. “Las Vegas is the only city in the world whose skyline is made not of buildings . . . but signs,” Tom Wolfe wrote in the middle of the 1960s. “One can look at Las Vegas from a mile away on route 91 and see no buildings, no trees, only signs. But such signs! They tower. They revolve, they oscillate, they soar in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless.”