History of the Headlight

Sealed Beam Headlamp on a Lincoln
Sealed Beam Headlamp on a Lincoln. Photo by Mark Gittelman

Whether you have a 1948 MG TC Roadster or an Italian built 1984 Ferrari 308 GTB it's quite possible that you'll experience headlight issues at some point. These can range from a burned-out bulb to a miss adjusted headlight beam that fails to illuminate the road properly.

Since the headlight has been around for so long and gone through so many changes we thought it was time to shed some light on the origin and evolution of this night driving necessity.

It isn’t often that we think about the evolution of car headlights, but when we were putting together our Headlamps of the Arizona Auctions photo gallery, a light went off and we thought the subject warranted further research.

Here we'll uncover interesting tidbits of information about what the first automobile used for headlights. Then review some of the technology changes in the headlight manufacturing industry over the last hundred years or so.

The First Lantern Headlights

The oldest headlamps were fueled by acetylene or oil and were introduced in the late 1880s. Acetylene lamps were popular because the flame was resistant to wind and rain. Although electric headlights came on the scene in the 1890s the technology wasn't strong enough to unseat the acetylene type lamps.

Companies like Prest-O-Light and Corning Conophore took the basic lantern type headlight and turned it into a valuable accessory.

Prest-O-light came up with an efficient storage and delivery system for the volatile acetylene gas.

It also created an interior mounted switch that ignited the lantern. Corning Conophore experimented with methods of reflection and focusing. By 1917 a Corning headlamp could illuminate a road sign up to five-hundred feet away from the automobile.

Electric Headlamps

The first electric headlamps were introduced in 1898 on the Columbia Electric car. This company built only electric cars and offered the low powered headlamps as an optional accessory. Two factors limited the widespread use of electric headlamps in the late 1800s.

A big problem became the short life of the glowing filaments. You have to remember in the dawning of the automotive age operating conditions were far less than ideal. Headlamps mounted to the front of the vehicle had to find a way to survive this harsh Environment.

Another challenge became the difficulty of producing dynamos small enough, yet powerful enough to produce sufficient current to fuel the new filament style lamps invented by Thomas Edison in 1879.

Headlights as Standard Equipment

Prest-O-Lite acetylene lights were offered by a number of manufacturers as standard equipment in 1904. And Peerless made electrical headlamps standard in 1908. In 1912, the innovative Cadillac division of General Motors integrated their vehicle's Delco electrical ignition and lighting system.

This created the first modern style automotive electrical system. In 1940, the modern sealed beam headlight technology found its way into the automotive industry.

For 17 years the government mandated the 7 inch size of the lamp and stifled innovation for this time period.

In 1957 the law changed to allow different size and shape lights as long as they illuminated the road properly. Headlight technology was now on the path of improving and innovating once again.

From Sealed Beam to Halogen

The sealed beam units were used by all manufacturers in Europe, Japan and North America through the 1960s. Only after 50 years did a new base technology emerge. Halogen bulbs which have become a standard again in both sealed beams and also as singular bulbs.

Halogen bulbs are still incandescent style lamps, but use a different twist to the technology. Standard bulbs use a filament surrounded by an inert gas mixture, usually nitrogen-argon. The halogen bulb uses a compact envelope surrounding a tungsten filament.

The gas filling the chamber was originally iodine, but now bromine has become the standard. This compact environment allows for a much longer filament life and brighter illumination.

Whats Next for the Headlight

Now after nearly another 50 years we have the new light-emitting diode (LED) technology. Just as innovations of the past, LED bulbs provide longer life and illumination of objects at further distances.

In fact, the dependability of these bulbs often robs the vehicle owner of the joy of replacing a headlamp bulb during an average ownership life cycle. If history repeats itself, we don’t think we’ll be around for when the next generation of headlight technology hits the automotive market.

Edited by Mark Gittelman