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The history of headlights

Since the first car came on the scene way back in the 1880s, the headlight has been a steadfast companion to all vehicles throughout the history of the automobile. An absolute necessity when it comes to safe driving at night or in low-light conditions, headlights have proven themselves invaluable, and it’s hard to imagine what a car would be like without them today!

But just like the cars we drive today look nothing like the ones our grandparents and great-grandparents drove, so do our headlights too. To give headlights their due, we’re taking a short detour to look back at their evolution. From headlamps to cutting-edge laser technology and everything in between, this is your crash course on the history of the headlight.

Our journey begins back in the 1880s, when vehicles were just starting to take the world by storm.

1880s – The First Lantern Headlights

The first cars featured headlamps powered by oil or acetylene gas. Very similar to the old gas lamps used in people’s homes, these proto-headlights were constructed from a lantern with a reflecting mirror that allowed an unfocused, scattered light to brighten the road ahead. While they were quite popular at the time due to their wind and rain resistance, these acetylene headlamps had to be cleaned often to prevent the buildup of caustic lime – a highly toxic substance.

They weren’t ideal, but they got the job done, at least until electric headlights made their entrance a decade later.

1898 – Headlights Go Electric

First arriving as an optional accessory via the Columbia from the Electric Vehicle Company, electric headlights were a small step in the right direction. However, they weren’t very functional until much later – when Cadillac introduced the Delco electrical ignition and lighting system in 1912. A short lifespan, weak environmental resistance, and manufacturers’ inability to produce dynamos small enough to provide a good fuel current made traditional electric headlights unfortunately one of the weakest contributions to headlight history.

1939 – Sealed Beam Headlights

When you picture old, classic cars, you probably imagine cars with sealed beam headlights. Introduced just before America entered World War II, sealed beam headlights gave drivers a more focused beam of light than previous designs.

Once the 60s hit, the halogen sealed beam headlight became the standard tech in Europe. The addition of halogen gas reacted with the tungsten filament to produce a brighter, more even light that lasted longer. But, the new headlight tech wouldn’t become standard for Americans until the late 70s.

1983 – Composite Headlights Become Standard

Before composite headlights, if one of your bulbs burnt out, you had to replace the entire set (which was super expensive!). To make things more convenient for drivers, in 1983 the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108 was changed to allow all composite headlight assemblies to include a nonstandard shape as well as replacement bulbs.

Thanks to these updated rules, the replaceable halogen headlight soon became the headlight of choice.

1990s – HIDs Take Off

Once the 90s rolled around, a new type of headlights called Xenon, aka HIDs were born. Filled with xenon gas instead of halogen, these new headlights were able to give off an even brighter light, and could reach full brightness within a few moments of starting the car.

In addition to providing better light, drivers also benefited from an improved lifespan, more durability, and more color temperature options.

2004 – LEDs Jump on the Scene

Although you may think of LED headlights as being ubiquitous in today’s auto market, they actually didn’t exist until 2004, when Audi’s A8 brought them onto the scene. As with most tech in its first few years, the first wave of LEDs provided spotty performance at best, even with their gains in efficiency.

In the past decade though, LEDs have improved greatly, and most auto-lovers love the bright-white look they bring to their favorite vehicles.

Today – Lasers Change the Game

While LEDs or halogen headlights are pretty much the standard for most cars now, laser headlight tech is emerging as a possible new alternative. At this point, laser headlights offer an impressive 1.25 mile line of vision and unheard-of efficiency, but lack good focus and aren’t fit for most vehicles on the market today.

What’s next for the future of headlights? We’re not entirely sure. But one thing’s for certain – improving safety and efficiency standards will likely remain top of mind for all manufacturers as we head into 2020 and beyond. But, if history is any indication, it might be awhile before we see the next iteration of headlights reach the market! Until then, shop our wide selection of headlight sets to keep your car performing at its peak.

Claire Biggerstaff
Claire Biggerstaff is a freelance writer and photographer from Charlotte, NC. Her curiosity leads her to write about a wide variety of topics. On her off days, she enjoys reading Polygon articles, and curling up to a good YouTube playlist.

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    4 Comments

    1. This is like the ancestry of headlight. It’s impressive to see how far headlights have come. Lasers! That’s crazy cool. I’m sure in about 10-15 years lasers will have improved tremendously on it’s way to being the new norm. I wonder what will come after lasers?!

    2. Makes one wonder what’s the far future holds in terms of technology for headlights.

    3. I love hearing the history of something. I had never really thought about how people could see in the dark while driving in the past. I’m guessing with a horse and buggy they just held up a lantern or didn’t go out when it was too dark? Wow innovation has brought us so far!

    4. Headlight assemblies have been making a shift toward becoming a single replaceable unit. A great example of this are the LED headlights that must be replaced as an entire assembly if any part of it is damaged or becomes burnt out. Eventually, you wont be able to replace your headlight bulbs, but your headlight assemblies will have a long-life light source. We already have LED factory projector lights on vehicles available now that are designed this way. This will likely become the standard of headlight design.

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