Flickering Light: A History of Neon

By Brevda, William | The Historian, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Flickering Light: A History of Neon


Brevda, William, The Historian


Flickering Light: A History of Neon. By Christoph Ribbat. Translated by Anthony Mathews. (London, England: Reaktion Books, 2013. Pp. vii, 222. $30.00.)

This book offers a concise cultural history of neon that emphasizes its "force as a metaphor" in the story of modernity (20). Because neon can be interpreted in different ways and has figured in both "fantasies and nightmares," the book could have been titled "Ambiguous Light" to capture its theme (19). The original title in German was Flackernde Moderne: Die Geschichte des Neonlicbts. According to some cultural critics, "[i]n the era of artificial lighting and illuminated signs the city was becoming more and more superficial and theatrical, clamouring for more and more effects" (8). But another point of view maintains that "the history of neon stands out against the overly pessimistic story of the ongoing dematerialization of our cities and the virtualization of our everyday life" (10). From this perspective, neon becomes "an emblem of the true city, of craft and of visible and tangible materiality" (132).

That neon can be perceived in contradictory ways is illustrated by the story of Georges Claude, "the father ... of the neon light" (40). William Ramsay discovered neon, but it was Claude who realized its potential for advertising and made it commercially feasible. The firm of Claude Neon sought to monopolize the industry by selling its patented electrode to franchises worldwide. Claude Neon also produced a magazine, Claude Neon News, that enabled the "French Edison" to construct "his own quasi-religious company mythology" (39, 41). Claude's biography supports theorists who correlate the success of neon with global capitalism or the "society of the spectacle" (8). But Christoph Ribbat reminds readers that neon was also a boon to small businesses, added color to small towns, and developed into a craft. …

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