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Neon Museum is saving Las Vegas' most beautiful tech

Forget wafer-thin TVs and quantum dots at CES. The loveliest technology in Las Vegas this week is lighting up a junkyard in the middle of the desert.

The Neon Museum celebrates the technology that Las Vegas is known for.

James Martin/CNET, with permission at The Neon Museum, Las Vegas, Nevada

It's a cold morning in Las Vegas, and half the tech world is queuing to get its fingerprints all over shiny new gadgets at CES.

But five miles north of the packed convention center, the rarest technology in Las Vegas is sitting in the dirt in a junkyard.

Welcome to the Neon Museum, a Las Vegas institution dedicated to collecting, restoring and relighting the neon signs that have given the bright-light city its sparkle since before Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo.

Before mass-produced LED displays, before wallpaper-thin OLED TVs and before CES even started 50 years ago, neon livened up this city -- and now the Neon Museum is doing the same for the old signs that have finished their duties on The Strip.

For the Museum's collections manager, Maggie Zakri, it makes sense that one of the biggest tourist highlights in Vegas would be dedicated to the technology of yesteryear.

"Las Vegas did neon signs like it does everything else -- big, bright and spectacular -- so our city's story is intricately linked with the story of neon," she said. "We consider neon Las Vegas' native art form, and we have been entrusted by our community to care for and protect its heritage."

Every year, thousands of tourists stream through the Neon Boneyard, the dusty lot that houses the Museum's outdoor collection.

This morning, we've come early, before the crowds, to see the break-of-day cast long shadows across rusted iron, intricately blown glass tubes and broken colored bulbs.

There's something wonderful about these electrical behemoths living out their years so close to the new tech at CES down the road. With their simple Atomic Age designs and retro-futurist aesthetic, they're a far cry from today's quantum dot technology and bezel-less HDR displays. It's still tech, but it's a little more Googie than Google.

Still, even though some of these one-off signs are looking worn out, they represented serious innovation in their day.

Turning night into day time

As Americans started zooming across the country's highways on the Great American Road Trip in the mid-20th century, mom-and-pop diners had to find a way to lure motorists off the road.

Enter the neon sign. These glowing structures became what academic and neon historian Len Davidson calls "technological signs."

"The signs would become attractions," he told me over the phone from Philadelphia, where he keeps his own collection of vintage neon. "People would literally go to a place to bring the kids and watch the giant rabbit jump or look at an animated sign of a racing car. The signs become famous, and Las Vegas is the epitome of that."

The Neon Boneyard has its own versions of animated neon -- signs that alternated lit sections to give the appearance of movement -- including the dancing "Happy Shirt" that stood above Liberace's dry cleaner. But Davidson said other designers went further to please crowds, building elevators into massive signs or adding other effects, like Times Square's Camel cigarettes sign, which blew smoke rings.

"The signs themselves were technological marvels," Davidson said.

The Happy Shirt, which once sat above Liberace's dry cleaner Steiner Cleaners, featured neon bars that can be lit to make the shirt "dance."

James Martin/CNET, with permission at The Neon Museum, Las Vegas, Nevada

But sometimes simple still wins. At the Boneyard, Zakri said, visitors still flock to see the signs they remember from Vegas' glittering heyday, including the iconic Stardust structure.

At 188 feet tall and 96 feet wide when fully assembled, Zakri said, "it's a boneyard showpiece." It's easy to see why. With eight letters and a scattering of stars, it says Sinatra, sin city and swingin' 60s all at once.

Even though it's no longer lit, and it's separated into pieces scattered like old bones across the park, the Stardust is still spectacular. But at night, the signs that have been carefully restored give visitors to the Neon Museum a sense of what the strip really looked like in the Rat Pack days.

Keeping neon alive

Even though so many of these signs were hauled up on pylons and left for years to withstand the desert sun, they're incredibly delicate.

Each neon tube is individually blown and shaped, then filled with rarefied neon gas that is zapped with up to 15,000 volts of electricity to create that distinctive glow. But if the glass smashes, the gas disappears and your buzz is gone quicker than a dollar in the slots.

The "showpiece" of The Neon Museum.

James Martin/CNET, with permission at The Neon Museum, Las Vegas, Nevada

According to Zakri, there's plenty of expert work that goes into getting these relics back into their original show condition.

"Signs can take about three to six months to restore depending on their size and condition," Zakri said. "[That includes] reblowing the glass and replacing the gasses, rewiring the electrical components to bring them up to code, repainting the cabinet, reshaping damaged metal and mounting the sign on a frame or in concrete to stabilize it."

It might cost $10,000 to restore a small, simple sign. The larger pieces can run to at least $100,000 worth of repairs.

Thankfully, neon doesn't look set to disappear from Vegas altogether. Indeed, venues in the city's old Downtown strip are required by law to light 75 percent of their signage with neon, after the area was designated a National Scenic Byway.

But even after LG, Samsung and Sony ship their cutting-edge TVs out of town after CES, the bright LED screens will stay behind, promoting everything from Elton John to dollar beer nights.

Zakri says these high-tech displays are energy-efficient and easy to update, but there are still some things that modern technology just can't do.

"Neon signs are made by artists with serious science skills -- they are not made by machines," she said. "There is an inherent character infused into each sign by the glassblower...[and] this all comes through in the beauty of the humming tubes as they advertise anything from beer to dry cleaners to theaters.

"There is a life to neon signs that just isn't there in computerized screens."