In 1898, two British chemists were playing around with their atomic spectrometer—as you do, if you’re a turn-of-the-century British chemist—when they changed the world of lighting forever. William Ramsay and Morris Travers isolated a previously undiscovered element in their device, and after sending some voltage through it, marveled to see it take on a bright, red-orange glow.
They named the element ‘neon,’ which is the ancient Greek word for new. About a decade later, a French engineer popularized neon lighting and the boom began in earnest. From the beginning, it was associated with cocktail culture: one of the first neon signs ever was a massive Cinzano vermouth beacon that blazed above the Paris skyline in 1913. Also from the beginning, neon was a form of light that combined the utilitarian and the artistic—even the earliest “Joe’s Bar and Grill” signs had an undeniable, eye-catching cachet.
Neon would light up the United States from roughly 1920 to 1940 before dimming somewhat during World War II. The glow returned brighter than ever in the late 1940s and into the ‘50s—and no city was, or is, more synonymous with neon than Las Vegas, which started taking its modern shape in the middle of the Nevada desert in the mid-50s. Contemplating the city’s uniquely radiant skyline, composed entirely of signs instead of buildings, author Tom Wolfe wrote, "But such signs! They tower. They revolve, they oscillate, they soar in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless."
That ineffable art form is enjoying a comeback lately, and Las Vegas remains at the forefront, with three initiatives in particular. Next time you head to the desert playground for cocktails and memorable nights on the perma-glowing town, be sure to check out these monuments to the city’s most prominent feature.