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Car Features

The history of headlights

20 Dec , 2016  

Headlights have come a long way since their origins in the 1880’s.

Back then acetylene lamps or oil were the flavour of the day, these were favoured for nearly 30 years due to the unreliable, fragile nature of filaments and the difficulty of manufacturing small dynamos that were powerful enough to provide a decent enough current.


Olden times

In 1908 a Birmingham company (not sure if that is US or UK) were there first to produce a complete set of car lights, including headlights, sidelights and tail lights, all powered by an 8v battery.

The next innovation came in 1912 when Cadillac combined their ignition system with the headlights. The modern electrical system was born.


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In 1915 low beam headlights were introduced, again by Cadillac. Before this happened the driver would have to stop, get out of the car and adjust each light.

By 1924 the Bilux bulb was created enabling both dipped and main beam from a single filament, and in 1927 foot operated switches were introduced becoming the norm for the rest of the century.

1933 Packards had triple beam headlights dubbed “country passing”, “country driving” and “city driving”. Foot operated dimmer switches were finally culled in 1991 on the Ford F and E series vans.

Directional lighting may seem a pretty new thing, yes we all know the Citroen DS had turning headlights, but they were seen as early as 1935 on the Tatra 77a.


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Standardisation was needed, so in 1940 a 7 inch headlight was made law in the USA, you had to have two per car. This was changed in 1957 to allow up to four 5.75 inch round headlights, then in 1974 these were allowed to be rectangular.
But clear headlight covers weren’t permitted in the US until 1983, so to get around that law automakers introduced the pop up headlight.


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Halogen lights – the H1 bulb to be precise – was introduced across Europe in 1962. Once again this wasn’t allowed in the USA where the light intensity per headlight was pretty much 1/4 of that in Europe.
US input was increased to about 50% of the power in 1978.



The modern era

Not much happened from then on until the early 90’s when BMW introduced High Intensity Discharge (HID) lamps in their 7 series.
HID’s work by creating an arc of electric between two electrodes in an inert gas. They are more efficient than halogen bulbs, producing more light for the amount of electricity.


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The next step up was LED’s. Lexus was first to market with the LS600h, but in 2007 the Audi R8 V10 was the fist car to use a full LED headlight setup.
Audi pioneered daytime running lights with the use of LED’s, the rest of the car world was soon to catch on as it became a desirable thing to have.
For the first time LED headlights enabled you to use full beam without blinding oncoming vehicles. A camera mounted behind the rear view mirror would look out for light sources up ahead and turn individual LED’s off to stop the glare.


A Headlight That Thinks Ahead

BMW took the next leap with laser headlights. The i8 was the first car to be fitted with this latest form of tech.
It works by firing three laser diodes into a prism, this combines into one beam that is passed through a phosphorous lens that transforms the light from blue to white, it then hits a reflector which pushes the beam out onto the tarmac ahead.


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LED’s are super efficient, but lasers use 30% less energy! They can also light things up around 2,000 metres away, but lasers aren’t as accurate as LED’s, so are currently only in use for high beams.


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But the majority of cars these days still use good old halogen bulbs. Often the standard ones fitted are done so on a budget, they aren’t the best on the market and the Halogen tech is being pushed all the time.
You can switch out most H1 and H7 bulbs for aftermarket ones which will give a whiter, brighter light. It’s well worth the upgrade, especially on older cars.


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James Dempsey is originally from mother Russia. He works as a freelance journalist for various publishing companies and devours anything tech and car related. He has been a long standing contributor to Team Carwitter and helps keep the site viable.