What goes without saying today was anything but normal in the pioneering days of automobiles. At the start of the last century cars had four wheels, a steering wheel and brakes. The lighting was made up of candles or gas lamps (history of car lighting part 1), and even carbide lamps only produced a dim little flame. The wind constantly blew it out when driving on country roads, and with increasing traffic the number of nighttime accidents also went up. Something had to change. And though many were still convinced of their fairly reliable gas lanterns, manufacturers started to put the still relatively new electric light bulb in front of a new type of reflector, initially supplying it with power using batteries and later on through generators.
As early as 1911, Cadillac, a former technical pioneer, was the first manufacturer of vehicles with internal combustion engines to introduce electric lighting as standard. The first parabolic headlights were developed, in which a light bulb emits light onto an upper parabolic reflector which distributes it onto the road in front of the vehicle. Back then flashing the lights, low beam or high beam worked either through mechanical reflector adjustment or additional headlights. Patterns in the headlight lenses distributed the light on the road in such a way that the side of the road was also illuminated. Many drivers were still suspicious of the new technology, and they held on to their highly dangerous lanterns and smelly carbide lamps until the 1920s. In 1913, Bosch was the first manufacturer in the world to use a generator with a controller and battery, revolutionizing vehicle lighting. The light could now be switched on and off by pushing a button, and shone many times further than the antiquated lanterns.
But every time there’s something new you get people who grumble about it instantly. In this case they felt they were constantly dazzled at night by oncoming cars, something that didn’t happen with the good old gas lanterns. And the Americans were much further ahead anyway, with Cadillac introducing dipped beam which could be controlled from the driver’s seat as early as 1917. In 1921, the Ministry of Transport of the Weimar Republic therefore passed a law which prescribed permanent dipped beam at night following the American example. Be seen, but don’t see yourself. This resulted in a dramatic increase in fatal accidents by night in Germany because nobody had really thought about American roads being much better illuminated than German country roads, which until recently had still been dominated by horse-drawn carriages. And horses sleep at night. So despite the new electric lights German drivers were suddenly left in the dark again.
This meant a new challenge for manufacturers of headlights and lamps. The parabolic reflector as such was quite brilliant. So brilliant that its design would survive until well into the 90s. But the thing that shines in there still needed to be significantly improved. It had to be easy to use, reliable, affordable, and be easy to operate and maintain even for the technically not so gifted gentleman driver. Only a few years after the dipped beam law came into force, Osram was to present a ground-breaking invention that is still used today. But that’s a different story. If you own an old car, give your headlights a bit of a pat. After all, they’ve been around since the 20s in this form