Drivers are so spoiled today. Keyless entry, make yourself comfortable, *click* sound system comes on, *ding* traffic reports straight to your phone. Press the start button, switch on your xenon or LED Multibeam headlights and off you go into the dark, hitting the tarmac. It’s like not having to leave your armchair by the fireplace. Do you think that’s normal? Yes, and that’s precisely how it should be.
More than 100 years ago you still had to go through a lot of preparations before you could drive off. The benchmark for mobility at the time was a horse and carriage without a roof and without lights. The first motorized carriages had carbide lamps if they had any lights at all. Classy. Very classy.
Carbide. Who knows what that is? Who of you also had a friend in primary school who brought in a piece of carbide, placed it on a wastepaper basket during break, spit on it and lit it up? And who then got detention because half the basket burned down? So carbide … A fascinating substance for the very first serious lamps at the front of the first cars.
Carbide feels like a soft stone, smells like a classic stink bomb and goes by the chemical name CaC2. So pay attention you at the back, that’s one part calcium and two parts carbon. It doesn’t occur in nature and needs a substantial amount of energy to be produced. But if you bring carbide into contact with water it produces acetylene gas. And that burns pretty well.
On the side of our test vehicle from 1907, a well-dressed gentleman unscrews the lid from a small container on the running board and throws one of these small gray lumps in it. *splash* into a bit of water. Like back in the day with the spit and bin. The man screws the lid back on. He points knowingly to a thin tube which leads to two fold-out lanterns at the front. After folding out the thin glass coverlets of both lamps, he holds a match over the first small outlet in front of the reflector. There’s a quiet popping sound and basically the light has come on, the way it was done 100 years ago.
And there it is, a delicate little flame; hot, quite dangerous for your fingers, mind you. Just like a candle placed in front of a mirror. That’s dipped beam ca. 1907. The flame slowly gets brighter, with full brightness only after around 10 minutes, so night-time trips to your local takeaway around the corner have to be planned well in advance. Back then, that is.
A dim little flame compared to current headlights. From today’s point of view more than impressive and very simple; at the start of last century it was more than enough though. Cars wouldn’t drive faster than 30 km/h, and initially there were only very few on the largely bad roads. With such a small carbide lamp you could easily see and be seen; many vehicles even only had one single lantern. The development and particularly the speeds of cars have changed dramatically over the following decades. Today visibility and speed have a completely different relationship, but that’s a different story. Osram has made a significant contribution to the development of lights in cars to this day; more on this to follow soon. The cab ride to the past is over for now.