Gas discharge lamp basics
The use of electrically excited gas discharges significantly predates the invention of the incandescent lamp. Physics labs of yesteryear as well as today have use of a variety of gas filled tubes used for numerous purposes involving light generation including spectroscopy, materials analysis, studies of gas dynamics, and laser pumping. Look through any scientific supply catalog and you will see many different types of gas filled tubes in all shapes and sizes.
Gas discharge lamps are used in virtually all areas of modern lighting technology including common fluorescent lighting for home and office - and LCD backlights for laptop computers, high intensity discharge lamps for very efficient area lighting, neon and other miniature indicator lamps, germicidal and tanning lamps, neon signs, photographic electronic flashes and strobes, arc lamps for industry and A/V projectors, and many more. Gas discharge automotive headlights are on the way - see the section: "HID automotive headlights".
Because of the unusual appearance of the light from gas discharge tubes, quacks and con artists also have used and are using this technology as part of expensive useless devices for everything from curing cancer to contacting the dead.
Unlike incandescent lamps, gas discharge lamps have no filament and do not produce light as a result of something solid getting hot (though heat may be a byproduct). Rather, the atoms or molecules of the gas inside a glass, quartz, or translucent ceramic tube, are ionized by an electric current through the gas or a radio frequency or microwave field in proximity to the tube. This results in the generation of light - usually either visible or ultraviolet (UV). The color depends on both the mixture of gasses or other materials inside the tube as well as the pressure and type and amount of the electric current or RF power. (At the present time, this document only deals with directly excited gas discharge lamps where an AC or DC electric current flows through the gas.)
Fluorescent lamps are a special class of gas discharge lamps where the electric current produces mostly invisible UV light which is turned into visible light by a special phosphor coating on the interior of the tube.