Saturday, October 12, 2013

Wattage Industry There’s more to urban lighting than illumination

Glitter Gulch cowgirl

 Decades before Hillary Clinton chaired a health care task force and Nancy Reagan urged new drug enforcement laws, Lady Bird Johnson declared war on neon lights. Specifically, she fought for the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, lamenting what she called “endless corridors walled in by neon, junk, and ruined landscape.”
Today, neon signs may not seem like a first-lady-worthy scourge. After all, every city-dwelling North American can probably think of a beloved neon landmark, from Boston’s CITGO sign (which was replaced by LED lights in 2005) to the smiling pink pachyderm advertising Seattle’s Elephant Car Wash. At the time, though, Lady Bird Johnson was not alone in her views: Even before their exuberant heyday in the 1920s and ’30s came to an end, neon lights had become, for some, “emblematic of the decline of Western civilization,” observes Christoph Ribbat. 
Ribbat is a professor of American studies at Germany’s University of Paderborn, and his writing is larded with irrelevant detail—“A long-term study shows that 75 per cent of successful country songs between 1960 and 1987 were love songs”—and sometimes baffling. On the other hand, he’s done a prodigious amount of research. Flickering Light details the history of neon as a medium for advertising and art, beginning with the British chemist William Ramsay’s discovery of the noble gas in 1898. Twelve years later, a French engineer, Georges Claude, demonstrated the first neon lights, made with electrified glass tubes. Read more...

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