Or is 160 years more correct?
I’m writing these lines on the neon sign‘s 100th birthday. I’m standing on historical soil, wherethe father of the first luminous sign was born. No, I‘m not sitting under the Eiffel Tower in Paris, as most readers would expect, but on the heights of the Rennsteig, a former medieval trade road that’s now a hiking trail in the Thuringian Forest in Germany. But let‘s go back a few hundred years further and start from the beginning.
Glassmaking was perfected in Roman times. In fact, the ancient products and techniques couldn’t be replicated until the late 20th Century. Slightly later, alchemists appreciated glass because it withstood not only the aggressive action of acids, heat and other experimental conditions, but, also, its transparency permitted the experimenter to view what was going on inside.
Glassmaking consumed more wood than even Roman shipyards. After the decline of the Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, glassmaking businesses would repeatedly deplete surrounding forests, then move to the next wooded area.
In 1597, when the Thuringian Forest was untouched and impassable, Johann Casimir, the Duke of Saxony-Meiningen, wanted to convert forest into agricultural areas to feed his starving populace. So, he invited glassmakers to settle at the Lauscha Creek, and he bestowed honors for each acre of forest that was logged and converted.
Lauscha’s glass industry prospered, and the region’s population exploded (winter is bitterly cold there). Thus, the next generations were forced to spread out and establish more glass factories nearby.
Rapid population growth also mercury vapor “lamp.” Later, scientists such as Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley and Humphrey Davy investigated “the passage of electrical fluid through different kinds of air” using glass vessels and electrostatic machinery.
But, their experiments were rarely repeatable due to unavailability of proper vacuum pumps, pressure gauges or gas analytics. They couldn’t contain the gas inside the glass vessel for long – the electrical wires that fed the current in and out couldn’t be passed through the glass wall tightly. To further seal the tubes, they applied beeswax and rosin, which added gaseous components, and, in the process, air leaked in.
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