Neon and Argon Lamps

An early form arc discharge lighting
(1898 - today)

The Neon lamp is a low pressure gas discharge lamp. It is a cold cathode fluorescent lamp (CCFL). The term "Neon Lamp" is used to describe a CCFL with a tube diameter less than 15 millimeters. Due to the great popularity and ubiquity of the neon lamp we consider it one of the 12 main types of electric lamps in this History of the Electric Lamp.

All credits and sources are located at the bottom of each lighting page


*Good lumen per watt performance
*Neon performs more reliably in cold weather than hot cathode fluorescent lights
*More reliable than LEDs for airport runway landing lights

50 Lumens per watt (red)
65 Lumens per watt (green)


*Shape of tube is a limitation
*Argon is not reliable in cold temperatures
*Diffused light (not good for any focused beam applications)

Introduction & Statistics Colors

How They Work

Inventors and Developments


Below: Video on Neon Lamps (Youtube must not be blocked on your server for this to work)

*Lumens per watt: 50 - 65
*Lamp life: 25,000 hours
*CRI (for white lamps only) 70
*Color Temperature (for white lamps): ~5000

Common uses: signs, accent lighting, highlighting building features


1. How it Works

1. How it Works

The classic neon lamp is made of a glass tube containing a mixture of neon (99.5%) and argon gas. There are two electrodes, one positive, and the other negative. Voltage rises and an arc is struck between. Argon gas is used in other fluorescents as well because of a lower striking temperature. After the argon strikes an arc the neon gas is warmed and current is able to flow through the neon gas, ionizing more atoms as the current rises. A ballast is necessary to limit the current since resistance will continue to drop as current rises. See how it works in the video.

Other "Neon" Lamps:

People use the term 'neon sign' to describe CCFLs of all colors. Other colors may not use neon. They may use helium, xenon, or other nobel gases. Today most other colors work by using mercury vapor. This type of lamp was invented 3 years after the neon lamp (1901). First argon strikes the arc, this heats up and vaporizes mercury stuck to the sides. The arc then goes through mercury vapor, which creates UV light. The UV light excites the colored phosphor and you get your desired colored light. The mercury vapor lamp is one of the main 12 kinds of lamps and you can read more about it here. We recommend you continue reading below before moving on to mercury vapor lamps.

The neon lamp works on AC or DC power. Interestingly when using the lamp with DC, only one of the electrodes will glow since ions are formed off of that electrode. AC power provides a nice uniform look with a glow evenly distributed.


Plasma monitors/televisions
Indicator Lights
Numeric Indicators (Nixie Tubes)
Mechanical Scan Televisions
AC or DC indicator

Left: Neon signs use the top 5 gases from the nobel inert gases


While in the past a great variety of gases and phosphors were used to create signs of various colors, today there are more effective phosphors which will work simply with mercury/argon lamps. The mercury vapor is a more efficient lamp and is desired over other gas fillings like xenon and helium. You can still get lamps with a variety of nobel gases.

Clear red - neon

Red opaque - Neon Gas with red phosphor

Neon + Argon + Hg combination used for outdoor use in order to function more reliably in cold weather

Blues, Greens, yellow- phosphor with Argon and Mercury Gas (Argon starts the arc, warms up, then mercury gas ionizes, UV light is emitted) UV activates the colored phosphor

Pinkish white and white - Helium gas in a clear tube, or you can use Hg vapor with a white phosphor

Orange - Neon Gas with yellow phosphor


Yellow - can also be created with helium and a yellow phosphor

Other Colors in a clear tube:

Krypton - Whitish-Green
Xenon -

2. Inventors and Developments

The neon lamp was discovered in 1898, however its roots lie in the early experimental cold cathode tubes created in the 1850s and later. Georges Claude contributed the most to the neon lamp but all the engineers below deserve recognition.

1857 Heinrich Geissler - father of fluorescent lamps: developed a glass tube with partial vacuum with two electrodes on each end. He experimented with electric arcs through different types of gasses. The "Geissler Tube" created an impressive soft colored glow and is the basis for many kinds of lights today such as the Mercury Vapor Lamp, Neon Lamp, Fluorescent Lamp, Metal Halide Lamp, and Sodium Lamp

1898 William Ramsay & Morris W. Travers - discovered the neon lamp at a time when neon was a very rare naturally created gas. They moved on to other experiments and did not see the lamp as remotely cost effective.

1904 Daniel McFarlan Moore - first commercial installation of the "Moore Tube": a predecessor to the fluorescent lamp and neon lamp. He uses and arc through nitrogen and carbon dioxide gas to make light.

1915 Georges Claude - around 1902 discovers how to create neon gas during his work on liquefying air. Claude is aware of the work of George McFarlan Moore in New Jersey, and he creates a "Moore Tube" with neon gas. After further work he displays the first modern neon lamp in 1910 a the Paris Motor Show (Salon de l'Automobile et du Cycle). By 1915 Claude creates his own unique and reliable neon lamp. he corners the market until the 1930s. He later is condemned for being a fascist and sympathizing with the Nazis.

1917 Daniel McFarlan Moore - (General Electric) Moore again makes his mark on lamp history by inventing the negative glow neon lamp. He creates small bulbs with two electrodes, neon gas glows immediately around the electrodes. This is used as indicator lights on many devices until it is replaced by the LED in the 1960s. It is still used in decorative Christmas lights since the red light flickers and dances between electrodes similar to a flame.
Photo: Schenectady Museum

Next: The Sodium Lamp


Previous: Nernst Lamp 1897


The Electric Light


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Written by M.Whelan with additional research by Rick DeLair
Please contact us if you are a historian and wish to correct or improve this document.

Rick Delair - lighting collector
The General Electric Story by the Hall of History
Teylers Museum. Nederlands


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Schenectady Museum

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