Almost exactly to the day, one hundred and sixteen years ago, in a laboratory in London, two British chemists did an experiment that would transform New York City. On June 12, 1898 they discovered neon.
From 1920 neon became a fixture in the city. Visible even in daylight, people would stop and stare at the first neon signs–which they called, “liquid fire.”
I adore neon signs. (The new ones are not neon, by the way–they are LED so I don’t love them at all. They have no soul. But they are cheaper, brighter, and of course at all times uglier.) But neon signs? They flash. They blink. They flicker. They glow. They have their own typefaces. Some whisper at you. Others yell. There are iconic huge ones (like the Pepsi-Cola on the East River). And tiny ones peeking out of your local shoe-repair shop you hardly even notice.
Plus the other thing I love: like all light, they are at their best in darkness.
These two photos I took of neon signs in my neighborhood.
Someone said, neon is as important to New York City as the Empire State Building. Imagine if the Empire State Building was dismantled one brick at a time? And yet, one by one, these beautiful signs are disappearing. (For the past few years Kirsten Hively has been documenting the neon signs in the city. You can see her photos here.)(Thomas Rinaldi has worked on a similar project since 2006. But in that time over 80 of the signs have already disappeared.)
Neon signs are like a living snapshot of history.
They are so important to us that they’ve even entered our language–to mean something unmissable. As in, “What do you want, a neon sign?”
Well. Actually. Yes Please.