The Evolution of Illumination
When Merson first began trading in 1938, we were incorporated as ‘Scottish Neon Products’ by founder Jim Merson. In 1971 he changed the company name to Merson Signs. The name change could be mistaken for vanity, but perhaps it was foresight, as the later introduction of LED lighting for signs effectively reduced neon to a lower-volume craft product in the following years. Prior to LEDs neon had been the go-to illumination method; much as gas lamps and incandescent bulbs had been prior to neon.

Over the past century or so, all elements of signage have changed a great deal. From their design and construction methods through to less tangible aspects such as their relevance in society and how they are perceived.

Illumination is no different. It has constantly been evolving and developing ever since the birth of illuminated signage. The first illuminated sign dates back to the 1840s when American showman P.T. Barnum advertised his Museum by a gas-lit display. People had never seen anything like it and were drawn to his illuminated museum like a moth is drawn to, well, a light. Gas lighting rapidly grew in popularity and was used to highlight the signage of theatre marquees, drug stores and other retail stores. Soon though the next step forward, the electric lamp, was introduced.

In 1881 the first electrical sign was built with incandescent bulbs in London, displaying the word “EDISON” during the International Electrical Exposition. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s the use of electrically illuminated signs took off, replacing gas lighting which had not only become commercially and technically obsolete, but was also now simply old news compared to the marvel of electrical lights.

In 1910 arguably one of the most famous electrical signs in the world was erected in New York. Featuring a Roman chariot race, the sign was composed of 20,000 bulbs of different colours, 7,000 connections and 2,750 switches. The simulated movement of horses, riders and whips was achieved by over 2,500 flashes per minute and the sign drew in huge crowds every single night for many years. It was undoubtedly one of the largest and most impressive light displays of its time, but even this was to pale before what came next: neon.

Although the name for the general type of lamp is “neon”, neon gas is just one of the gases used in commercial application, with pure neon gas used to produce only about a third of the colours available. A huge number of colours can be created by using different combinations of gases and fluorescent coatings within the tube, and because of the near-infinite list of possible shapes one can create with the glass-blowing construction method, the applications for neon lighting is just about endless.

By the 1930s nearly every town in the western world was utilising neon signs for its pharmacies, banks, theatres, grand hotels, fancy casinos, everything. Fast forward to the late 1950s and early 1960s and Las Vegas was exploding as the entertainment capital of the world, of course utilising neon signage in spades. Thanks in part to the intrinsic association of neon lighting with Las Vegas, today the connotations of neon signage have changed somewhat and it’s typically associated with the likes of clubs, tattoo parlours, chip shops and generally more “nightlife” associated businesses. In 21st Century Britain would you go to a bank or an estate agency that had a neon sign in its window?

When LED signage was introduced to the masses in the 1970s, its introduction was somewhat the reverse of neon’s – LEDs started out primarily in the entertainment industry, such as LED scoreboards at sports events, before moving into more mainstream application. Nowadays LEDs are the preferred illumination method for almost all uses of signage, not least because of its environmental credentials. LEDs use a tiny amount of power compared to more traditional illumination methods, an increasingly important selling point in the modern world.

It’s only very recently that LEDs have become an integral part of the signage industry. Up until just a few years ago, the technology simply wasn’t accomplished enough to produce any significant perks, and it was not seen as beneficial to step away from more traditional illumination methods. Now though LED lighting is at a stage where they not only consume significantly less energy than the more traditional florescent lamps they replace, but are also a more versatile and attractive lighting method.

Recently Merson developed the Advanced Directional Sign (ADS) for installation in motorway gantries, as part of our recent involvement in the M74 Completion project. The ADS utilises LEDs combined with retro-reflective microprismatic sign sheeting, which greatly increases the gantry signage’s visibility as well as using 70% less energy than the traditional fluorescent tube lighting method. This has led to an overall saving of 2.6 tonnes of carbon emissions per gantry per year.

Illuminated signs from the past are now valued as antique rarities, especially neon signs which are popular as nostalgic trinkets of the 1940s and 1950s. Who knows, perhaps one day LED signs will be considered historic artefacts?