Tube Benders

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I am Roman Mars.

Downtown Oakland where we work is beautiful, but it doesn’t cut a very distinct skyline. Sure, there are the cranes down by the port and those are pretty famous, but in terms of downtown Oakland proper, there is pretty much just one building that defines the nighttime skyline, the Tribune Tower.

Avery Trufelman:
It used to be the headquarters of the newspaper, The Oakland Tribune. The paper moved up the street, so now the tower is an office building.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
The Tribune Tower, which happens to be right by our office, was the tallest building in Oakland in the 1920s. It’s a 22 story tower topped with a copper-coated pitched mansard roof and a sandy brick exterior. It’s really unique architecture, but that is not why it’s the most distinctive building in Oakland.

Roman Mars:
It’s famous because it says “Tribune” in gigantic orange red neon letters on all four sides of the building, and each side has a neon clock with neon hands.

Avery Trufelman:
And It’s always on every night, never flickering, rarely is a letter out because the Tribune neon has a secret weapon on the top, top floor of the tower.

Roman Mars:
Take the elevator to the 20th floor, there you will see a door.

Avery Trufelman:
Restricted area, limited access, and there is a flight of narrow stairs.

Roman Mars:
Up the stairs, you will find a man.

Avery Trufelman:
John, hi.

John Law:
Hey, there.

Roman Mars:
John Law, the keeper of the neon.

John Law:
We are on the 22nd floor of the Oakland Tribune Tower because I have a little tiny office space in one corner. The current owners, I have a wonderful arrangement with them. We rent the place from them and I will keep their neon signs going.

Avery Trufelman:
By trade, John Law is a sign installer and maintainer. He is the one that keeps the Tribune Tower neon blazing.

John Law:
Nowadays, a wraparound neon clock on the 20th floor of a building is fairly rare. There were more in the 30s and 40s. They built a lot more buildings with signage on them in neon. They’re almost all gone.

Roman Mars:
The Tribune neon, like many, many neon signs has had periods of darkness and neglect. Most signs of this size have been allowed to flicker out and die.

Avery Trufelman:
But, thanks to John and the owner of the Tower, the Tribune neon, after a period of neglect has been on consistently since the late 90’s. And this is no small feat.

John Law:
This is the back of one of the four clocks. Watch your head coming in.

Roman Mars:
John can repair some of the neon from within the tower.

John Law:
But, if I have to get out on the face and work on the neon – on the letters – I have to clip into it. I have a full body harness and kind of step onto the face of the letter with my butt hanging over a drop.

Roman Mars:
A drop of something like 300 feet.

Avery Trufelman:
But John loves heights, and he loves neon.

John Law:
There is nothing like neon. I mean, other light sources they don’t have that fuzzy other-worldly look to it that you get with neon. Neon signage, it could be very beautiful. A Lot of people in the past have considered it to be cheesy and ugly and representative of some dying commercialism that they found unpleasant.

Christoph Ribbat:
People like philosophers, essayist writing critiques of late capitalism, they use neon as a metaphor to express their distaste for the neon hell that we all live in.

Avery Trufelman:
Christoph Ribbat is the author of “Flickering Light: A History of Neon”.

Christoph Ribbat:
I teach American Studies at the University of Paderborn in Germany.

Roman Mars:
For Professor Ribbat, to study neon is to study America.

Christoph Ribbat:
A blinking in the night in some American diner, that’s just something if you’re coming from a European background, it has a really aesthetic power to it. It is a great metaphor of American culture even though it’s not an American product, per se.

Roman Mars:
The gas, neon, was discovered in 1898 by a British scientist named, Sir William Ramsay. It was a new gas, so we named it for the Greek neos, meaning new.

Avery Trufelman:
Ramsay realized that if you ran electricity through this new gas it would burn bright, bright orangy red. But he basically said “Oh, that’s cool” and then forgot about it, moving on to find other gases and ultimately win a Nobel prize.

Roman Mars:
But neon lights as we know them were made and popularized by another chemist.

Christoph Ribbat:
There was this Frenchman. He played around with these neon tubes. He was a pretty good businessman and thought, well, we could do something with this.

Avery Trufelman:
A Frenchman named Georges Claude made his first neon lights in 1910. He eventually quit chemistry to start a business called Claude Neon. It was the first to sell this new lighting for decor and for advertising.

Christoph Ribbat:
The first neon signs were up in Paris. The barber shop was the first shop ever to have a neon sign. And then it really spread around the city of Paris, and from Paris then it spread around the world.

Roman Mars:
Georges Claude may have been the father of neon lights, but he was not a good guy.

Christoph Ribbat:
Well, yeah, yeah, it’s hard to fall in love with them. He turned into an ardent follower of Nazi Germany. Great businessman, but also doubtful morals.

Avery Trufelman:
But neon swept the United States. It was brighter and more efficient than incandescent lighting, and Americans were giddy with it.

Roman Mars:
By 1924 the company, Claude Neon had franchises in 14 major cities across the country. By the 1930s there were 20,000 neon advertisements in Manhattan and Brooklyn, most of them made by Claude Neon.

Avery Trufelman:
Neon signs were the embodiment of prosperity, so neon was on respectable upscale spots like movie palace marquees and opera houses, nice places.

Christoph Ribbat:
It started with the churches, and the fur stores and the car dealerships, institutions that signified luxury.

Avery Trufelman:
Neon became the symbol of life in the big city.

Christoph Ribbat:
Late 40s, Peggy Lee, a singer in those days, she had a song.

Peggy Lee:
“I’m going out where the neon signs shines down on the avenue. I’m going out with the neon signs and I”m gonna shine like neon.”

Christoph Ribbat:
It was really this neon enthusiasm of that period.

Roman Mars:
But the initial excitement fades. The popularity of downtown wanes. People move to the suburbs. The cities grow dark. The neon flickers.

Christoph Ribbat:
Years later, 10, 20 years down the road, then it was more cheap bars, cheap hotels, and then it’s had this seedy quality to it. And then by and by it turned into this metaphor of people who more or less critiqued the loneliness in society.

Christoph Ribbat:
There is a lot of country and western songs that alway have someone getting drunk by the neon sign.

Country Music:

Christoph Ribbat:
And suddenly neon, which used to be a sign of luxury, turns into a symbol of poverty and of rundown cities.

Roman Mars:
Neon is also hard to maintain. And a broken neon sign is a bright flashing sign of brokenness.

Christoph Ribbat:
That’s why it became the symbol of decay.

Avery Trufelman:
If neon tubes are made well they can last about 30 years, sometimes up to 70. But they are glass, so they can break. They’re out there in the elements, so the electricity can flicker out.

Roman Mars:
When a neon sign goes out, you can’t just screw in a new tube or order up a cheap replacement.

Christoph Ribbat:
You would think that it was like a machine made product, right. That there was some big neon factory that just turned out neon on an assembly line. That’s really not the case. It’s really craftsmen who shaped these signs. They bend the tubes with their hands. It’s really just one person doing this.

Avery Trufelman:
A person like Shawna Peterson.

Shawna Peterson:
A neon glass blower is not a glass blower. It’s really called neon tube bending. That’s the trade. We’re tube benders.

Roman Mars:
Shawna Peterson has been bending since 1987. She says color is a good way to decode these signs, to know what’s inside of them, and what quality they are.

Avery Trufelman:
Red neon lights are the most basic and the most popular.

Shawna Peterson:
That’s a reddish orange. That’s the standard neon red.

Avery Trufelman:
That is pure neon gas. It just naturally burns that color.

Roman Mars:
And then there is blue neon, also pretty basic. The cool secret about blue neon is that it’s not actually neon gas. It’s argon gas brightened with a little mercury, but we still call them neon signs.

Avery Trufelman:
And for a while almost all neon signs were just red and blue. Pure neon or argon mercury in clear tubes.

Roman Mars:
Then the industry came up with a way to make any color you want.

Shawna Peterson:
There is a phosphor powder coating on the inside of the tubes.

Roman Mars:
Benders can use tubes with different phosphorus on the inside of the tubes to create more colors than just red and blue.

Shawna Peterson:
Use a fuchsia, use a green, a lime green. Go for lime green. Use of color done well is nice.

Avery Trufelman:
Now just to be clear, those neon beer signs at the bodega or those standard open signs can be and often are made on a massive scale in China. Those are still hand-blown. That’s the only way to make neon, but that’s like one person makes only the letter E all day long, another person makes only O’s. These signs are lower quality.

Roman Mars:
Cheap signs for beer brands or generic open signs are often colored with a coating of colored plastic on the outside of the glass tubes. Usually it’s so cheap you can chip it off with your fingernail.

Avery Trufelman:
But, if you’re looking at a sign over your local bar, or hotel, or sometimes even a neon sign over a chain store, if it’s large and you haven’t seen it anywhere else, it was probably painstakingly crafted, probably locally.

Roman Mars:
Neon tube benders get glass from the manufacturer and four foot long tubes. They draw out a pattern for how they’ll bend and fuse it.

Shawna Peterson:
If you’re bending the word apple, you never start with A. You have to map out in your mind where those curves are and how they’re going to change direction and generally you’re going to start somewhere in the center of that word and work your way out.

Avery Trufelman:
Shawna has a number of different burners and tools to manipulate the tubes. To bend a curve, she’ll hold the glass tube on either end over an open flame burner.

Shawna Peterson:
When I’m using it, it sounds like this.

Avery Trufelman:
Shawna has only a few seconds to bend the glass into a perfect shape before it hardens up again, so she has to act quickly and precisely.

Shawna Peterson:
Sneezing is a tube bender’s nightmare.

Roman Mars:
Then Shawna processes the bent tubes with a machine called up a bombarder. It’s this whole process where she heats up the tubes really, really hot and vacuums out the impurities before filling the tubes with neon or argon mercury and fuses the electrical source to them.

Avery Trufelman:
That, in crude summary, is the craft. It’s expensive, it’s difficult, and there aren’t that many people who can make neon signs and that is why…

Randall Ann Homan:
When they break they usually get replaced with LEDs.

Al Barna:
LED is so much cheaper, and people in the LED industry will tell you it’s so much brighter as well.

Avery Trufelman:
Randall Ann Homan and Al Barna are the publishers and photographers of a book called “San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons”.

Randall Ann Homan:
All of these signs are part of our cultural heritage in San Francisco and they’re treasures. We need to hang on to them.

Avery Trufelman:
Randall and Al lead tours of some of their favorite neon around the city.

Randall Ann Homan:
Let’s stop here.

Avery Trufelman:
Many of the signs are defunct or hang over businesses that they’re no longer affiliated with.

Randall Ann Homan:
All right, so this is my very favorite sign. This art deco peacock has no fewer than 17 concentric circles of neon. It’s really a feat of tube bending. Now, the business is long gone. It’s a miracle that it’s still here.

Roman Mars:
San Francisco was once covered in neon. Look at an old picture of Market Street from the 1950s and you’ll see it looks like the Vegas Strip, all a glow with flashing lights. Then in the 60s there was a campaign to get rid of all of that flash and beautify that part of town. Almost all of those neon signs were removed.

Avery Trufelman:
Around the rest of the city, pretty regularly stops on Randall and Al’s neon tour will just vanish.

Al Barna:
Yeah, it’s embarrassing and awkward to bring a tour group around the corner to talk about a sign that doesn’t exist anymore, so it illustrates the nature of neon signs. If you’re interested in photographing them or painting them do it as quick as you can because they can disappear overnight.

Roman Mars:
It’s not just San Francisco. New York also went from having tens of thousands of signs in the 1970s to just a couple hundred today. Hong Kong is losing a lot of its spectacular neon displays. Signs change with their cities.

Avery Trufelman:
But in some spheres, neon is having a little revival. The few neon benders around are getting a lot of business from high end restaurants, and hotels, companies who want quotes illuminated on their walls, or artists who are commissioning neon pieces.

Roman Mars:
Now, a custom neon sign represents an emphasis on craftsmanship and style, tinge with a bit of nostalgia. And sure, this all sounds very artisanal and stuff, but this might just be the way that neon craft survives. At its core the ingredients are simple, glass, electricity and gas from the air we breathe. The results bend into something spectacular.

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