Friday, December 1, 2017

Neon glow lamp centennial

On November 30, 1917, Pennsylvanian Daniel McFarlan Moore, while working for General Electric in New Jersey, filed the patent for the neon glow lamp. Here's the top of the patent filing:
The top of the first page of Moore's patent filing for the neon glow lamp (US Patent 1,316,967)
D-mac called his invention a "gaseous-conduction lamp". In my opinion an apter name would have been "negative-glow lamp". At the time, it was commonly referred to as a "Moore lamp" and today we mostly call it "neon glow lamp".
Early gas-discharge tubes of the Geissler type existed at the time. In a Geissler tube most of the light is emitted by the positive-column part of the discharge. The negative-glow region close to the cathode only occupies a small fraction of the length of the tube. Modern fluorescent lamps, including CFLs, and the gas-discharge tubes used in neon signs are direct descendants of the Geissler tube. Moore's invention was to tweak the gas pressure and electrode spacing to make the negative glow occupy most of the discharge. In plasma physics we call this a short, or restricted, glow discharge and some weirdos with too much time on their hands perform elaborate computer simulations of such lowly devices.
The value of Moore's invention is that a short glow discharge can be operated at much lower voltages. Moore used an 80-20 mixture of neon and helium and mentions in the patent that 220 volts is then sufficient to turn the lamp on. In the US at that time, 220 volts was a common line voltage for commercial lighting, so that was probably his target voltage. Moore also made his lamp mechanically compatible with incandescent light bulbs:
One version of Moore's lamp, compatible with an incandescent bulb. The electrodes (13 and 14) are mounted on glass rods attached to the base of the glass tube. Figure from the patent filing.

With an optimal Penning mixture (99-1 neon-argon mixture), mains voltages of 110 volts, or even 100 volts, are more than sufficient. Miniature neon glow lamps are a commodity and can be bought for 6 cents to 60 cents, depending on order size and if you have time to wait for the boat from Shenzhen. They can be operated at DC or AC (as discussed at length in the patent filing) at voltages from about 75 volts, to all common mains voltages globally, up to the point where the glow discharge transitions to an arc discharge and the inside of the tube becomes covered by cathode material, causing a short circuit.
So, well done, Daniel McFarlan Moore! A wonderful invention, with some properties that could enable some novel applications, but that's another post, or two...