The Long View: Eclectic Electric

Ken Mergentime is the former executive editor of Sign & Digital Graphics and WRAPS magazines.

As readers of this column know, I generally refrain from using this space to effusively discuss all the great articles soon to be encountered in the issue (an abhorrent practice). I mean, that’s what the table of contents is for, right?

However, this month I will make an exception because I’m especially excited about the extensive coverage we’re giving to LED technology and its myriad of applications in electric signage. The special 32-page LED and EMC Report includes nine valuable in-depth articles on everything from channel letter and cabinet sign installation tips to managing heat in your LED display. Each story brings to light (as it were) an important facet of this growing segment of the sign industry.

LED technology has evolved at a tremendous rate over the last few decades, and its integration into our industry has at times seemed as inevitable as the rising sun. That’s not to say that the transition away from traditional sign lighting technologies hasn’t had its share of bumps, glitches and avid detractors. Oh contraire...

The rise of LEDs has continually raised the hackles of some proponents of traditional sign lighting systems including both neon and fluorescent. LED lighting is too expensive, and it’s just not as beautiful as neon, the argument goes. And what of the people who took the time and effort to learn the neon trade? Here’s where the weeds get thick.

William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers first discovered neon’s illuminative properties back in 1898. Neon signs were first introduced at the 1910 Paris Motor Show. Let’s face it, the system has enjoyed a very long and storied history. Producing neon involves the craft of bending glass tubing into shapes, creating a vacuum, filling it with any one of a number of rare gasses, and then passing a controlled electric current through it. The science and skill levels required of this craft are deep and demanding.

But like all technologies, LED as a newcomer sign lighting option has evolved and improved and slowly gained acceptance over the years. And although it’s still not perfect, there’s no doubt that it is where the industry is currently headed.

And while the market for neon lighting in outdoor advertising signage has declined, in recent decades neon lighting has been used beautifully in art—both in individual objects and integrated into architectural designs. In addition, several museums in the U.S. are now devoted to neon lighting and art, including the Museum of Neon Art, the Neon Museum, the American Sign Museum, and the Neon Museum of Philadelphia. These museums restore and display historical signage that was originally designed as advertising, in addition to presenting exhibits of neon art.

Meantime, LED technologies can be seen in all sorts of electric signs including channel letters, cabinet signs, message centers and large animated billboard displays. It is an effective solution to many sign lighting applications and cannot be denied. Okay, back to work.