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DayGlo: The Colors That Hide in Plain Sight

The Guardian newspaper of London must be peering across “the pond” -- as Englishmen call the Atlantic Ocean -- for it recently observed a classically American phenomenon.

It told the story of DayGlo® -- that blindingly bright, fluorescent coloring that shimmers on everything from traffic signs to marking pens to firefighters' jackets.

A California teenager named Bob Switzer invented the glittery substance one day when he was bored, some 70 years ago. He mixed fluorescent chemicals with wood varnish in his bathtub. Before long, amateur magicians -- including Bob's brother -- were making good use of the stuff. With the lights off, heads and arms smeared with DayGlo seemed to float in mid-air.

Engineers started blending the iridescent goo into their highway paint. Police marked their crime scenes with it. DayGlo toys and tennis balls became the rage.

But nowadays, there's so much shocking pink and shimmering yellow around, that nobody notices. So invisible have fluorescent colors become, notes The Guardian, that criminals have taken to wearing high-visibility clothing to avoid being spotted.

In America, this happens every time something startling becomes mundane. Nobody rushes over to check what's wrong any more when a car's burglar alarm goes off. After the first couple of airplane flights, we don't pay attention to the scary briefing about oxygen masks dropping down. Once, it was odd to see a man wearing an earring…now it's no big deal.

We may not notice DayGlo much anymore, but in a way, Bob Switzer never lost sight of his shockingly visible invention.

When he died in 1997, his grandson asked a priest to lay a phosphorescent golf ball in Bob's casket. He did so, he says, so the color would be with him forever.