ELEMENTARY, MY DEAR NEVADA: Neon is declared ‘official state element’ in glowing tribute

Nevada has long had a state bird, fish and flower. (The mountain bluebird, Lahontan cutthroat trout and sagebrush, respectively.)

And everybody knows about our state metal. (They don’t call it the Silver State for nothing.)

We even rank a state insect (the vivid dancer damselfly), fossil (the ichthyosaur) and artifact (the tule duck decoy).

But until recently, we never had an official state element.

That changed on April 22, when Gov. Steve Sisolak approved Assembly Bill 182, landing neon on the honored list of Nevada’s state symbols.

Will Durham, the man behind the measure, thought it high time atomic number 10 — its chemical element designation — got its local due.

“There’s neon all over the country, but Nevada has really embraced it in a way no other state has,” says Durham, a Carson City schoolteacher, neon-sign preserver and director of the nonprofit Nevada Neon Project.

Durham successfully convinced state legislators to support the bill with help from a gaggle of pint-sized lobbyists — his fifth- and sixth-grade students at Carson Montessori School — several of whom touted the noble gas in testimony before lawmakers.

“Neon is not a lost art here in Nevada,” fifth-grader Devyn Kellner says. “It is actually alive and thriving.”

“When we are traveling in Nevada after dark, there is something I always notice,” fifth-grader Sadie Brown testifies. “It is that familiar, soft orange glow of neon that still illuminates the sky in the middle of the desert as you are approaching Nevada’s towns. … Nevada definitely is known for its neon.”

Naming neon an official representative of Nevada seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, given the gas’ long, storied history in the state.

“Our neon signs represent some of the real, legendary, maverick personalities that shaped our state,” Durham says. “Our signs are really Nevada’s contribution to architecture.”

The bill, first sponsored by freshman Assemblywoman Sarah Peters, D-Reno, proved instantly popular, garnering bipartisan support and champions from across the state.

One of them was Rob McCoy, the Neon Museum’s president and chief executive officer.

“Make no mistake — this is the Silver State and it always will be,” McCoy said in a news release celebrating the bill’s passage. “But I think there is a significant case to be made that neon has been a more powerful business additive to the Nevada economy than silver and gold combined. Of course, here in Southern Nevada, neon put the ‘fabulous’ in ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas.’ But it was the neon light form — the element — that captured the world’s imagination.”

The nonprofit Neon Museum, which collects, preserves and exhibits iconic Las Vegas signs, draws more than 200,000 visitors each year.

“Neon has become synonymous with Las Vegas,” says Dawn Merritt, the museum’s vice president and chief marketing officer. She notes that the city is home to celebrated signs designed by talented artists including Hermon Boernge, Kermit Wayne and Betty Willis.

“You may not know their names but people around the world know their signs: The Desert Inn (Boernge), the original Stardust sign (Wayne) and the ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas’ sign (Willis), where today more than a million people a year wait in a line to have their photos taken.”

French inventor Georges Claude is credited with creating the first commercially viable neon sign in 1910, according to the Neon Museum. By 1939, there were about 2,000 neon-sign companies in the United States. Several of them, including the Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO), operated in Las Vegas. Nationwide demand for neon began to wane in the 1950s, but it has become “a vital element of the city’s image and economy,” Merritt says.

Now that element has taken its place among Nevada’s most revered symbols, where it will keep company with the state reptile (desert tortoise), state animal (desert bighorn sheep) and Engine No. 40, also known as Nevada’s official locomotive.

To offer feedback on this story or suggestions for future stories on Las Vegas Newswire, contact Managing Editor Steve Bornfeld at

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