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 further research was warranted.
What did the first automobile use for headlights, and how many technology changes have there been in the last hundred odd years? Well the short version is this; 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.
The first electric headlamps were introduced in 1898 on the Columbia Electric Car from the Electric Vehicle Company, and were optional. Two factors limited the widespread use of electric headlamps: the short life of filaments in the harsh automotive environment, and the difficulty of producing dynamos small enough, yet powerful enough to produce sufficient current to fuel the new lamps invented by Thomas Edison in 1879.
"Prest-O-Lite" acetylene lights were offered by a number of manufacturers as standard equipment for 1904, and Peerless made electrical headlamps standard in 1908. In 1912, our innovative Cadillac integrated their vehicle's Delco electrical ignition and lighting system, creating the modern vehicle electrical system.
Control and dip systems emerged but the next major changes in automotive headlight technology was not until the sealed beam headlight was introduced in the 1940s, and that both bulbs and sealed beam units were used by all manufacturers in Europe, Japan and North America through the 1960s. Only after 50 years did really a new base technology emerge – halogen bulbs which have become a standard again in both sealed beams and also as singular bulbs.
And now nearly another 50 years on we have the new LED technology. If history repeats itself, we don’t think we’ll be around for when the next generation of headlight technology to be introduced.