“... the flash of a neon light that split the night/And touched the sound of silence."
Paul Simon, "The Sound of Silence"
Following the invention of the electric lightbulb by Edison and Swan in 1878, the race was on to improve its design and performance. French chemical engineer, Georges Claude (1870-1960) was working on an invention to extract oxygen from air, for use in hospitals and welding, and his experiments resulted in his discovery of the noble .gases—helium, argon, krypton, xenon, radon, and neon—so called because they do not react with other elements.
Aware of the race for the perfect lightbulb, Claude experimented by passing an electric current through tubes containing different noble gases at low pressure. In 1902 he discovered that neon gas, with only a small current, produced an intense orange glow. He was unimpressed by the amount of light it produced, but Jacques Fonseque, an advertising agent, saw the potential for its application and the two men started to make neon signs, shaping the glass tubes and using mixtures of the other noble gases to produce different colors. In 1910, Claude displayed the first neon lamp to the public in Paris. In 1912, Claude and Fonseque sold the first neon sign to a barber's shop in Paris and, in 1919, just after World War I, they erected a huge neon sign over the entrance to the Paris Opera House.
However, it was in the United States that neon really took off. The first sign there, made by Claude's factory in 1923, was an advertisement for a car dealership in Los Angeles. By 1927, New York had 750 neon signs. During the years before the Great Depression of the 1930s, neon lighting had become a symbol of American opulence and extravagance.