When it comes to car design, headlights are one of the most prominent features. The headlights are the eyes of the car’s face, and they play a key role in determining how people feel about the attitude of the car; rounded lights will often denote a cute character while angled lights makes it look angry. But, what did the very first cars use for headlights? How has headlight technology changed over the years? Let’s take some time to look to the past and circle back to the future to find out more about the fascinating development of automobile headlights.
Headlights were originally oil-fueled or acetylene lamps (in the 1880s), but the latter was preferred because it was more resistant to rain and wind. These lamps had a mirror placed behind the flame to focus the light forwards, although the beam wasn’t particularly focused. The widely scattered light from these lamps was less effective at night because the light was scattered into the night sky rather than being directed at an object or the road ahead.
These were first introduced in the 1900s, but they took about a decade to go mainstream because it was quite difficult to build a dynamo that would fit in the car and still produce enough power to light the headlights. Peerless was the first manufacturer to use electric headlamps as a standard across its production range. In 1908, Pockley Automobile Electric Lighting integrated a complete set of electric lights including the headlights, rear lights and sidelights, all run by an 8-volt battery.
Sealed Beam Headlights
Introduced in 1939, sealed beam lights used a parabolic reflector, a lens, and a filament all sealed together. The parabolic reflector was used to focus the light more effectively. The whole system offered a brighter, and more focused light source from a tungsten filament. However, compared to the power they were using, the light was little, and burnt filaments left dark residue on the glass that limited the amount of light passing through. The first halogen vehicle-mounted lamps were produced in 1962 in Europe. They offered brighter and more durable headlights.
High-Intensity Discharge (HID) Headlights
HID lamps emit light by forming an electrical arc between metal electrodes, in an inert gas, all inside a glass bulb. These lamps are far more efficient compared to the traditional bulbs, since they produce more light in relation to the amount of energy used. This means that they can be smaller without affecting the amount of light they produce. Designers could now get creative and design headlamps with much freedom.
HIDs were popularized in the early 2000s, and the aftermarket quickly picked them up. They offer the advantage of not only brighter lights but a clearer image of what’s ahead. They also last up to three times as long as halogen bulbs and consume less energy, making them an ideal choice for environmentally conscious consumers. HID lights are bright and white, when seen by others on the road, and this provides an air of sophistication and modernization to any automobile, making them a popular choice with the most innovative and image conscious consumers. However, the problem with them is that they create brighter, and more focused light, and fitting them to traditional headlight systems could scatter the light and dazzle oncoming drivers. They need specific assemblies to focus the light source in the desired place.
LED and Laser headlamps
LEDs are very useful because they need very little energy to illuminate. They are very bright, and are incredibly durable. Light Emitting Diodes (LED) were first used in cars in 2004 by Audi. The integration of LED headlamps was generally well received by Audi and its customers, especially since these lights offered endless styling options when compared to more traditional headlights. However, some challenges did present. Installing them required using multiple individual units, and when one unit failed, it had the potential to compromise the entire look of the array. This problem has been mostly resolved with more efficient LED bulbs and the improved quality control measures put in place by manufacturers. Some users also initially expressed concern that the amount of heat emitted by LED lights was too high for an automobile, especially when combined with the heat coming off the engine. Fortunately, this proved to be mostly false as manufacturers quickly sorted it out and produced units that emitted very little heat, causing no safety concerns for drivers and their passengers.
The latest innovation in headlight technology is the use of laser beams. The BMW i8 was the first production car to integrate laser beams from front to end. BMW’s laser headlights offer the longest and clearest length of vision to date and ten times more intense outputs than other light sources available on the market. Environmentally conscious consumers also appreciate that laser headlights use about 30-percent less energy, making them a ‘greener’ option. While laser headlights may be the wave of the future, they are still very new to the marketplace, and there is little data available from car manufacturers and consumers. Their current price point is also significantly higher than LEDs, and they are not as precise. To date, only Audi and BMW have integrated laser headlights into their design, but there is a strong possibility that more auto makers will look to bring this technology to their vehicles as the design is improved and the price point lowered.
So there you have it. A brief history on the evolution of automobile headlights. From the earliest days to modern times, these devices remain important for the safety of drivers and the aesthetic value of every automobile on the road.
Willys-Overland – Wikimedia Public Domain
Willys-Knight 70A Touring – Wikimedia Public Domain
2009 Lincoln MKS – Wikimedia Creative Commons
BMW i8 – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Guest Author Bio
I currently live in Jacksonville, FL. When not working, I enjoy spending time with family and at the beach, on the boat and fishing – pretty much anything in the water. I’ve also been interested in lighting since I was a child, starting with an early obsession with the flashlight that scared away the monster under the bed and developing into the career I enjoy today.
Carter McCollum is the publisher of HIDheadlightconversionkit.com, saving lives and helping to keep drivers of all cars safer on our roadways.
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