Neon Lights Demonstrated – 1910
The orange-red glowing light now used for neon signs was first demonstrated at the Paris Motor Show (an automobile show).
Neon lighting was developed by the French physicist Georges Claude. He passed an electric current through a glass tube filled with neon gas. He also had to invent a way to purify the neon gas and a way to minimize the sputtering of the electrodes that go between the power supply and the gas.
(By the way, Claude made many other scientific advances and inventions as well. Some people call him the Edison of France. He collaborated with the Nazis when they took over France during World War II, however, and ruined his reputation with many people.)
Neon gas is inert. That means it doesn't react with other elements. (Hydrogen and oxygen are examples of gases that definitely DO react with other elements—and burn!) Helium is also inert, which is why it is safe to use inside children's balloons. The other inert gases that are used for lighting include argon, which produces a soft lavender light, and argon (enhanced with mercury), which produces a brilliant blue light. Other colors are achieved by combining different gases, including helium and the other inert gases, krypton and xenon.
To learn more about inert gases, check out Chem 4 Kids -dot- com.
A fellow named Earle C. Anthony, brought neon lighting to America in 1923 when he bought two signs in Paris and installed them in his Los Angeles car dealership. For decades Times Square in New York City and Las Vegas in Nevada have been famous for their elaborate use of neon lighting (including signage using other inert gases) and, of course, other sorts of lighting as well!
Sometimes you see felt pens or paints advertised as being “bright neon colors.” That means colors that seem to glow—even though of course they have nothing to do, really, with the element neon.
Glow sticks and glow jewelry are often marketed as “neon sticks” or described as being “neon colors.” Again, these light sticks and colors have nothing to do with the element neon or any other inert gas. Instead they use chemicals that react to excite atoms, which release light.
Here is an article about how glow sticks work.