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BBC Radio 4 - 92 to 94 FM and 198 Long WaveListen to Digital Radio, Digital TV and OnlineListen on Digital Radio, Digital TV and Online

Science
TRIPPING THE LIGHT FANTASTIC
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Ian Peacock blazes a neon trail from LA to New York

Friday 11.00-11.30am 1 November 2002

Ian Peacock journeys across America in search of neon signs past and present, to examine the story of the promoters and geniuses who fashion colour and light, electricity and information into icons.

'Neon Peacock'
'Neon Peacock'

Neon Schmeon by Ian Peacock

Nobody has a favourite lightbulb. If you have one, please don't email me or approach me by the fridge at a party. I don't want to meet you. Ever. I suggest you get a therapist or call Home Truths.

But neon...well...I see neon in a totally different light. In fact, it IS a totally different light. Unlike your average 60-watt screw-fit, every neon tube makes a statement, tells a story, has a life of its own. As Freud said (or didn't say), "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." But neon is never just neon.

Neon's never neutral. It's always love-hate. And it always means something...

Imagine the following (thankfully imaginary) scenes:

1. Neon all over the Cotswolds, the Highlands and the Fens.

2. A mass switching-off of every neon sign in the USA, from New York to California. Times Square vanishes. So does most of Los Angeles, Miami, Broadway, Route 66. Las Vegas disappears.

3. The Queen delivers her Christmas speech under a flashing neon corgi.

I think I've made my point.

More Neon

So what is it about neon that makes it so otherworldly, camp and utterly un-suburban?

Well, there is a theory that it hits your eye in a different way from other light and can be seen ten times further away. I also read on a website for neon anoraks that it resonates on a weird mystical frequency (which is why American clairvoyants and trendy vicars like it so much). Whereas your Umberto Eco types say it's about cultural resonance: the ultimate symbol of brash America, indelibly linked in our minds with sex, glitz and gorgeousness: the Liberace of light.

Frankly, I don't give a wiggletube (insider jargon there...sorry). I'm an out and proud neonophile and always have been. I don't care where my urge comes from. If there were neon bars, I'd frequent them and earnestly discuss the subtleties of bending and flashing. If there was a Neon Alliance, I'd march with it to defend the age-old right of townies to be loud and frivolous.

Yes...I'm ridiculously biased and so is my programme. Green activists, astronomers and people with taste are conspicuously absent from it. But I think my producer Adrian has just about prevented me from sounding like a neon bore, thanks to editing out most of my spontaneous and heartfelt neon eulogies (not that difficult really...they only filled 26 hours of tape). He also persuaded me not to propose a 17-part series on neon trivia to Radio 4, but I'm sure he'll see the light eventually.

Adrian Washbourne
Producer Adrian Washbourne

Some thrilling neon facts from Ian's Neon Notebook...

Queen Victoria was the first monarch to see neon. The gas was isolated in 1897 by Sir William Ramsey and Morris W Travers. They first demonstrated it at her Diamond Jubilee.

The first ever commercial neon sign was in Paris, outside the Palais Coiffeur barbershop in Montmartre

"Neon" means "new"

Neon is colourless but becomes orange when it's animated. The blue lights often described as "neon" are in fact Argon. The other gases used in "neon" signs are Krypton, Xenon and Helium.

Names for neon tubes: Crackle Tubes, Wiggle Tubes, Whirlygiggs and Jellybeans.

Frenchman Georges Claude pioneered neon signage and even published a neon fanzine in the 1920s. It was called "Claude Neon News". Readers thought "Claude Neon" was the editor's name

Early visitors to the neon spectaculars of Times Square wrote of "glow worms in the sky", "liquid fires" and "ribbons of living flame." An early European visitor exclaimed: "Pity the sky with nothing but stars".

Steam was used in 1930s neon spectaculars. A giant "Smellorama" coffee cup once emitted real steam and a coffee aroma in Times Square

Ian with neon creatures
Ian (left) with neon creatures

Busby Berkley's 1933 film The Gold Diggers featured 100 platinum blondes playing neon violins

Raymond Chandler was an enthusiastic neonophile: "There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon light"

Neon was introduced to Las Vegas ("Glitter Gulch") by a gangster and a mormon. Las Vegas has the world's largest neon sign graveyard

Neon was once banned in San Diego and Vermont

Pop and neon: Bjork wrote a song called "All Neon Like" and there's a Verve song called "Neon Wilderness"

They like their neon bright around Broadway and Times Square. According to Law ZR81-732 (1987), there are minimum requirements for the size and luminosity of neon signs, measured scientifically in "Luts" ("Light Units of Times Square")

The Museum of Neon Art in LA is a popular setting for weddings, memorial services and bar mitzvahs

The NBC building boasts a neon peacock

Ian Peacock's nickname is now "Neon Peacock" thanks to his obsession with the subject.


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