History of Automotive Lights

AN old car driving through fog

A Look Back at the History of Lighting

When you think about advanced technology, you likely think of computers, mobile devices, and similar gadgets, not about the lights that brighten your home, or the ones that illuminate your car interior and exterior. Still, lighting technology has advanced greatly over the centuries, and is truly one of mankind’s greatest achievements that is still being developed and improved today. Let’s take a look back at some of the advancements in lighting that have taken place since ancient times.

Early Forms of Lighting

Ancient civilizations didn’t have the benefits of electricity. Instead, they relied on sunlight to provide light by day and fire to provide light by night. The Greeks were well-known for incorporating skylights into structures to provide as much daytime illumination as possible, and as early as 70,000 years ago, humans began making different types of lamps out of materials like shells and rocks to light up their homes. The Greeks made the first terra cotta lamps during the 7th century BC, and over the centuries that followed, humans made many types of oil-burning lamps and candles to light up the night.

The Rise of Electricity and Gas

The very first electric lamp was invented in 1801 by Sir Humphrey Davy. The light was large and difficult to operate but it did give off light when electricity was passed through it. Throughout much of the 19th century, though, gas lighting remained the primary way that humans lit their homes and the streets outside. To drive their buggies at night, people living in the 19th century used kerosene lamps for illumination.

In 1878, Thomas Edison would forever change the way light was produced by creating the very first easy-to-produce electric light bulb, with a long enough lifespan to be practical to light homes. His light contained a tungsten filament surrounded by glass. When electricity flowed into the light, the filament would get hot and glow brightly.

rustic headlight from an old car from 1940s

Automotive Lighting History

Not long after Thomas Edison’s American company, now known as General Electric, began mass producing light bulbs, came the rise of the automobile. Using handheld kerosene lamps to illuminate roadways while operating a car just wasn’t possible, so early vehicle manufacturers developed headlamps that burned acetylene. Unfortunately, these lights weren’t very reliable. They flickered a lot, and they could freeze when temperatures dipped. Plus, they just didn’t shine that brightly.

Electric Lighting in Cars

Knowing that without proper illumination the automobile would never become popular, automotive companies hired engineers to work on better solutions for car lights during the 1900s. In 1908, there was finally a headlight bulb with a carbon filament like the one Edison invented that was battery operated and suitable for use in cars. The new driving lights boosted sales, and by 1911, a number of vehicles were being sold with headlights as standard features. A year later, technology advanced so that headlights could be wired into the rest of the vehicle, and cars have been produced with exterior car lights ever since.

After 1912, engineers continued to work to develop better automotive lighting solutions for vehicles. Here are some of the most important landmarks in automotive lighting history:

  • Invention of High and Low Beams. From 1915 to 1917, inventors developed the first driving lights that could switch from bright illumination to light up an empty road to lower-powered illumination to avoid blinding oncoming vehicle drivers.
  • Turn Signals. By the 1940s, all vehicles had turn signals that flashed to let other drivers know when vehicles were making a turn. The mechanism that would allow the lights to turn themselves off after a turn was completed was invented in 1941.
  • Sealed Beam Headlights. In 1940, headlights were developed that consisted of a one-piece housing that held the car light bulb and the wiring. When the bulb burned out, the entire headlight was replaced. Over the years, sealed beam headlights went from round single high and low beam lamps to dual lamps with separate high and low beams. In the 1970s, rectangular versions of the lamps were introduced. Up until 1983, sealed beam headlights were the only lights that could be legally used on American roads.
  • Replaceable Bulb Headlights. After 1983, automobile manufacturers began using headlights with replaceable bulbs. With these lights, it was no longer necessary for a full headlight replacement when a bulb burned out. Instead, just the bulb could be replaced.

Headlight shown in a car show of a Lamborghini

Advancements in Modern Interior & Car Lights

The incandescent lighting invented by Thomas Edison has now been phased out in favor of other forms of lighting that consume less energy. Some of the newer forms of lighting include:

  • Halogen lights. Halogen lights feature bulbs that have a tungsten filament surrounded by invisible halogen gas that helps the filaments last longer and reduces energy consumption. The precursors to halogen lights were developed in the 1890s, but this form of lighting did not become popular until the 20th century. Europeans began using halogen lighting for cars in the 1960s, and today, the majority of all car and truck lights, including fog lights, headlamps, and interior car lights are halogens.
  • Fluorescent lights. Fluorescent lights produce illumination by passing electrical current through gases that give off light when they absorb electrical energy. Fluorescent lights were developed during the 20th century and are commonly used for interior lighting today, particularly in office buildings and other commercial environments. Advanced forms of fluorescent lighting, like cold cathode fluorescent lamps, are used to produce custom headlights made by brands like Oracle Lighting and PMLIT lighting.
  • Xenon lights. Xenon lights produce illumination with electrodes surrounded by xenon gas. The electrodes send electrons coursing through the invisible gas, creating a bright bluish-tinted glow. Xenon lights, also called high-intensity discharge (HID) lights are used primarily for custom headlights and fog lamps for automobiles, and offer very bright illumination to light up the road. HID lights were first used in cars in 1991.
  • LED lights. LED or light-emitting diode lights produce electricity with very small semiconductors that excite electrons until they give off illumination. LED lights are used for many different applications, including interior and exterior lighting for homes and commercial buildings. LED lights for cars have also become very popular with drivers upgrading their vehicles with LED headlight bulbs and LED strip lights and other custom lighting. Some automakers are now including LED lamps as standard features on vehicles or offering them as upgrades on some models. LED lamps are one of the newest forms of lighting and became popular during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Toyota Tacoma with custom headlights and off road LED light bars

How Lights Are Used Today

Lighting is used in a number of ways by modern people, including:

  • For Safety. Humans still rely on lighting to help them see at night. In homes and businesses, lights make it possible to do work and safely navigate at all hours, and outside of buildings, lighting helps prevent accidents and offers protection from thieves. In vehicles, lights make it possible to avoid collisions by illuminating hazards on the road.
  • For Science and Medicine. Lights are now being used for a wide variety of scientific and medical applications. Microscopes equipped with lights make it possible for scientists to examine small objects, and light is being used to treat a number of diseases and conditions like depression and acne. People are even using highly concentrated beams of light to remove unwanted hair.
  • For Entertainment. Without lights, the screens of televisions, computers, tablets and smartphones wouldn’t work properly. Everything that features a digital screen relies on some type of illumination to produce images.
  • For Style. Lights are often used to enhance the appearance of a structure. Decorative lights in homes and businesses enhance the overall decor and make a space more attractive. In vehicles, lights can also serve aesthetic purposes. For example, some people install halo headlights on their cars to make them appear sportier and more upscale. Halo headlights are rings of light that shine around the outsides of car lights like fog lights, headlights, or tail lights.
  • For Mood. Light has been shown to have a dramatic impact on mood, and many people use lights to set the mood in their homes or businesses without even realizing it. Bright lights can boost a person’s spirits and increase alertness, while soft, dim lighting sets an intimate mood and can promote relaxation.
  • For Outdoor Adventuring. Lights allow people to explore woods, mountains, jungles, and other challenging terrains by night. Hand-held flashlights and head-mounted lights can be used by hikers and trekkers. In vehicles, off road lighting like LED light bars with floodlights and spotlights can be used to make areas of wilderness easier to drive over.

PMLIT.com is dedicated to bringing you the latest advancements in automotive lighting, as well as high quality lighting solutions for homes and businesses. We carry a wide range of car lights, residential lights, and commercial lights from top manufacturers like PMLIT Lighting and Oracle Lighting. For assistance choosing the right lights for your car, truck, SUV, van, motorcycle, boat, offroad vehicle, home, or business, contact our customer service team.

headlight of a junked car closeup

Sealed Beam Headlights and the History of American Automobiles

When you think about how automotive design has changed over the years, many stylistic changes, and technological innovations come to mind. You might think of how cars gained and shed fins during the 50s and 60s, about the advent of things  like power steering, and anti-lock brakes, or even the newest features, like self- parking cars. What you probably don’t think about much is the history of  headlamps, but the subject is rather fascinating, particularly when you consider how the sealed beam headlight rose to acclaim and then faded into obscurity.

History of Sealed Beam Headlight Assemblies

Here’s a brief look back at the history of sealed beam headlights:

The Early Days of the Automobile – In the early days of the automobile, every manufacturer had their own style of headlight bulbs. There was nothing standardized at all, so some cars’ headlights were very unreliable, and could burn out without warning on the road, or break while the vehicle was in motion.

1939 – Congress passed a law requiring the use of two 7-inch round sealed beam headlights. These lights consisted of a housing, a single bulb, and a glass lens, all packaged into one unit. When the bulb burned out inside the headlamp, the entire headlamp had to be replaced. The sealed beam headlights, which were mandated by the 1939 law, had a dual filament design, allowing them to serve as both the high and low beam lights. The backs of their housings had three prongs because of this. If you look at the front ends of cars over the next nearly two decades, you’ll quickly see that this law limited some of the creativity of automobile manufacturers.

1957 – Congress passed a new law in 1957, that made it possible for automobile manufacturers to use the previous 7-inch sealed beam headlights, or to use four 5- 3/4-inch round headlamps with two prongs: two for the high beams, and two for the low beams. Slowly, most manufacturers started to switch to the four headlight configuration. There was a little more room to innovate with the four-light design, as the headlights could be arranged one above the other, beside one another, or diagonally.

1975 – The law was amended again; now, it was possible to use rectangular sealed beam headlights as well as round ones. A shift to the metric system around the world, meant that headlights were now measured in millimeters rather than inches, and there were two rectangular configurations allowed by law: two-beam setups with headlights that were 200 millimeters in size, or four-beam setups with headlights that were 165 millimeters in size.

1984 – Lobbying from the automotive industry, particularly from Ford, prompted another change to the law, eliminating the requirement that only sealed beam headlights be used in designs. Finally, it was possible for manufacturers to use replaceable bulbs in headlights, and to introduce different shapes. These headlights are known as composite headlights.

The Modern Sealed Beam

PMLIT logo

While you won’t find many cars with sealed beam headlights as a standard feature, some after-market custom auto lighting uses the technology. Halo headlights and LED headlights are often sealed beam styles, mainly because the long life of LED bulbs makes replacements unnecessary for thousands of hours. You can check out some of the latest innovative sealed beam headlights from Oracle Lighting and other top brands at PMLIT.com.