Las Vegas: It's a Gas, Gas, Gas ; the Gambling Capital of the World Was Built on the Flashy Effects of Neon, Helium and Argon, Which Lit Up the Shadowy Nevada Desert. Now the City Is Paying Homage to Its Bright Lights, and the Debt It Owes to the Scientist Who Discovered How to Dazzle the World

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Neon: you need to know two things about this gas. The first is that it is, in elementary terms, a relative newcomer; even though it is present in small quantities in the air we breathe, it was identified only a century ago by a French scientist named Georges Claude. The second is that, being inert, neon is intrinsically dull. Oh, unless you pass an electric charge through it, as M Claude did. Do that, and it can light up the desert and dazzle the world.

Las Vegas was just a flicker in the eye of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City Railroad when M Claude announced his discovery. The first neon sign in North America was sold by M Claude's own company in 1923 to a Packard dealership in Los Angeles.

At the time, the Mormons mistakenly believed Las Vegas presented a promised, and morally safe, haven in the middle of the Mojave Desert. By the Thirties, they had lost faith with Las Vegas - and the rest of the world had lost interest in the fact that neon glows red in the dark and that, when mixed with a little mercury, its elementary cousin argon turns bright blue. But Las Vegas had barely begun to experiment with the extreme right-hand side of the Periodic Table of Elements.

Helium radiates a lurid magnolia when suitably fired up; krypton issues a steely silver; while xenon emits the palest blue. These elementary truths helped Las Vegas find its place in the world.

Whatever your desire, especially if it was illegal and/or frowned upon in the rest of the US, it could usually be found in Nevada's largest city. Drinkers could slake their thirsts, gamblers could stake their shirts and lovers could make (or fake) their vows. In short, it was a gas, with neon at the top of the elementary tree.

"Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" shrieks the iconic sign. When you see the city's emblem close up, in the unforgiving glare of a Nevada noon, it looks pitifully plain. You spot it as you head north along Las Vegas Boulevard at the intersection with Main Street. Las Vegas Boulevard is stripped down to "the Strip" by almost everybody. All the grand monuments from the turn of the 21st century, from the Venetian to Camelot (not a lottery operator, but a re-enactment of the court of King Arthur) cling to the southern part of the Strip.

Downtown Las Vegas is where M Claude's new gas found its raison d'etre, and helped the city claw an identity from the shadowy desert. Neon helped to define Las Vegas, and now the city is returning the favour. Time in Las Vegas seems to revolve around 33 times faster than real life. So the relics that have seen the city through since its foundation in 1905 are, relatively speaking, as ancient as the antiquities in Luxor - established in Egypt 1570BC, established in Las Vegas 1993. This was the same time as the Dunes - a shining light on the strip - was snuffed out. It was imploded to make room for Bellagio, the flashy Italianate hotel-casino (that hyphen welds the two together with a permanence not often found in Las Vegas) where Europe meets America and gambles away the rest of the night.

Las Vegas did not always have such global pretensions. In the early days, the city experimented freely with newly discovered elements on the blank canvas of the Mojave Desert.

Evidence of innovation is scattered around the city, but you have to raise your gaze from the baize gaming tables to see it. Downtown is like an amorphous neon museum, whose exhibits are scattered around the streets. The first item was the horse and rider from the Hacienda, now frozen in mid-leap at the corner of Fremont Street. Other exhibits, such as the flame that illuminated The Flame Bar and Grill, are tucked away in culs- de-sac.

But this month, the definitive exhibition of electrical potential has plugged itself into the traveller's need to know. For the rest of this year, "Neon Unplugged" is on show at the Nevada State Museum, a modest (for Las Vegas) building in Lorenzi Park, a couple of miles west of Downtown. …