First question ever asked, so apologies if I've done this incorrectly!

My current predicament: characters in 1931 Las Vegas are looking to get their hands on some neon/argon (for use in neon signs). I'm wondering where, realistically, they might be able to obtain some. Is it conceivable that they would be able to create some themselves via fractional distillation if they had adequate equipment? Or would a whole air separation plant be required to create enough neon? One character is a chemist with experience redistilling industrial alcohol to make it potable during the Prohibition period; would any of this experience translate at all to distilling gasses?

This is also happening while the construction of Hoover Dam is going on -- would there be any equipment or resources at the construction site that might be of use?

I've looked into Georges Claude and his air liquefaction business, plus the history of neon and the construction process of Hoover dam, and while I've learned a lot more than I first knew, I'm still lacking the specifics of exactly how this process was performed with 1931 technology. Grateful for any resources you can point me towards, huge thanks for helping me out with this!

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    $\begingroup$ Both gases are produced by fractional distillation of liquefied air. They are by-products, the principal product is nitrogen (gaseous or liquid, for different applications). You buy them from your preferred nitrogen supplier. I don't know about the U.S., but in Europe at that time the most important producer was Air Liquide. The principal piece of equipment was (and still is) a Hampson–Linde machine. (And in 1931 Claude Neon was in business to sell you bespoke neon signs.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 31 '20 at 19:45
  • $\begingroup$ It would be unlikely that you could just buy it in Las Vegas in the 1930s, since the population was only about 5000. (5,165 per 1930 census.) Of course you could order it from some industrial supplier, say in Los Angeles. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Aug 9 '20 at 17:10

Los Angeles? Salt Lake City? Or maybe even someone local by 1931.

The first neon sign in Las Vegas went up in 1928.

overland hotes

overland hotel http://captainhistory.com/wordpress1/2018/02/25/the-first-neon-signs-in-las-vegas-nevada/

If you want there to be some adventure and finagling involved your characters could go on a road trip to Los Angeles, which would be a good contrast with Vegas. But there were several other establishments in Las Vegas with neon signs in the late 1920s and by the 1930s it would not surprise me if there was a local outfit to provide them. Wikipedia says the first neon sign in the US was in Los Angeles in 1923.

The other possibility is that they could use hydrogen. It is easy to make hydrogen with electrolysis of water. Clearly hydrogen was used for some signs; it would be so much cheaper I am not sure why it was not used for all signs. I think it is either because neon gives a better color, or the hydrogen reacts with the electrodes and the sign life is short.

Another possibility: they could use helium.

gas discharge tubes https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gas-filled_tube

Helium does not make that eye-popping red color that neon does, but it is bright and colorful. Also the US in the 1920s had lots of helium. The National Helium Reserve was founded in 1925 to store all the helium being captured from natural gas operations across the Great Plains.

I could not find when helium became available for sale to the public, but it was being used to fill airships before the Helium Reserve came to be.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 just for including that news report. Can you imagine a time when a single neon sign would add "considerabl[y] to the appearance of that section of the city"? I wouldn't be surprised if people nowadays would consider a new neon sign not only just-another-sign-on-the-street, but might actually think it's adding to the world's light pollution. $\endgroup$ – JBH May 31 '20 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH: the real question is whether "considerable" was intended as adjective or noun... $\endgroup$ – Willk May 31 '20 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ Excellent resource and answer, thank you so much! $\endgroup$ – cboss May 31 '20 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ Neon is brighter than hydrogen, and as you mentioned is less reactive. Hydrogen also has a tendency to slowly leak out of anything it's sealed in. $\endgroup$ – Skyler Jun 1 '20 at 20:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Willk: The real real question is whether it was just a typo for considerably, or an accurate transcription of a dialectal use of considerable as an adverb. (There certainly are dialects that don’t require -ly for using adjectives adverbially, but I don’t know if that would be likely in 1920’s Las Vegas.) $\endgroup$ – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Jun 1 '20 at 21:59

Simply buy it. Neon was commercially available, although probably not terribly cheap. Linde Air Products was founded in 1907 and still exists as Praxair. They were the main users of Carl von Linde's patents and processes in the USA, and would have been an important supplier to makers of neon signs. You don't need a great deal of neon for signs, which is fortunate, since it only makes up 1 part in 55,000 of Earth's atmosphere.

Argon was used as a shielding gas in welding. That consumes far more gas, but argon is cheaper, since it makes up nearly 1% of Earth's atmosphere. I'm fairly sure it's used for this because it is the cheapest "noble" gas.

There might well be a company in Las Vegas that acted as a distributor for industrial gasses, but if not, there should be one in Salt Lake City.


I doubt very much that Neon (<0.002% of the atmosphere) or even Argon (<1% of the atmosphere) would be extractable using any form of home made equipment in the 1930's. With sufficient time, money and know how I'm sure it could be done but its not the sort of oporation to run in your garage. Far easier to buy some, both gases were in use in sign making from the 1920's so anyone sufficiently determined could have found a source.

Alternatively they could have attempted to construct a small cryogenic plant from non standard parts, I know which way I would choose.


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