A history of artificial lighting

Vehicle Headlamps – A History Of

The Humble Beginnings - Artificial Lighting

These days it would be impossible to imagine vehicles without lights but its history would be complete without knowing the inventors who made it all possible. History indeed tells us that it was a certain Thomas Edison who invented the light bulb, but things began much earlier than his claim.

Without the knowledge of the scientists and discoverers who passed before him it is hard to imagine if he could have succeeded, not as the inventor but as the man who was first put his patented idea into mass production.

So to put the record straight here are some interesting facts about the origins of the light bulb we have all now come to take for granted. Both in our vehicle headlights and indeed our home and streets.

We will later be looking into its evolvement and how it was eventually transformed for use in the cars and other vehicles we all use on a daily basis. Starting over a million years ago and taking us through the history books to the light bulb as we now know it.

LED Lights shining at night

Vehicle Lighting - Content Links

1700 - Artificial Lighting
1802 - Humphry Davy - The first electric light
1840 - Warren de la Rue - Vacuum tube
1850 - Joseph Wilson Swan - Glass bulb
1874 - Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans - Nitrogen filled
1878 - Thomas Edison - Electric lamp
1879 - Lewis H Latimer - Light bulb
1880 - Borrowed Ideas - Bamboo filaments
1898-The First Electric Headlamps




1700s - Artificial Lighting


The sun, moon and the stars were the only source of light before artificial lighting came to be. Moonlight was sufficient enough to guide people through the night until the discovery of fire.

It was the use of fires to light the inside of cave homes that is thought to be the original utilisation of artificial lighting. This firelight was used under control in the 1700s and was implemented to light streets, while candles and oil lamps lit inside of buildings. Even with this control, fire of any kind was dangerous and not that bright, it also gave off dangerous fumes and odours.

Over the next century flames and oil lamps were replaced with gas lighting which was cheaper and produced a much brighter light. There was still some use for flame-driven light as candles and oil lamps were used on horse drawn carriages to guide them through the streets. It was not necessary to have any lights on the first road vehicles like the Self Moving Carriage, because they were only originally driven during the day.

Horse drawn carriage


1802-Humphry Davy


Humphry Davy, a prominent inventor and chemist, invented the first electric light During his experimentation with electricity, he also invented the electric battery. He found that he could make a piece of carbon glow when connected to the battery with wires. The light produced was not very bright and did not last long enough to be useful, so his studies continued. In 1806, Davy also invented the Electric Arc lamp which was a more powerful dimmer light and in 1815, the Davy Lamp which miners used when working with flammable gases. The concept behind Davy’s lights was linked to the lights early vehicles used before headlights were standard.



1840-Warren De La Rua


British scientist Warren De La Rua, used concepts similar to those used by Davy. By enclosing a coiled platinum filament in a vacuum tube, and passing electricity through it, light was created. Platinum has a high melting point which allows it to continue connecting at high temperatures. This combined with the reduced number of gas molecules in a vacuum, delivered a longer lasting light. The only problem with the design was the use of platinum which was too costly and impractical for large scale production.

First light bulbs


1850-Joseph Wilson Swan


Joseph Wilson Swan, an English physicist, created the first “light bulb” in 1850. He enclosed filaments made of carbonized paper in an evacuated bulb and by 1860 he had a working prototype. Unfortunately, the vacuum was insufficient and the electricity supply was inadequate to allow for an effective light. In 1870, Swan used a vacuum pump that had been invented for his experiments, and by 1878 a longer lasting light. He also discovered that using a treated cotton thread overcame the problem of blackening that was happening with bulbs so far.


1874-Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans


Two Canadian colleagues, Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans filed a patent for the lamps they created. Their lamps used different sized carbon rods that were held between electrodes in nitrogen-filled glass cylinders. Woodward and Evans tried to commercialize their invention, but when this was unsuccessful, they sold their patent in 1879 to a certain Thomas Edison.



1878-Thomas Edison


Edison focused his research on developing an incandescent lamp and in 1878, he patented his “Improvement In Electric Lights” application. He developed several different test versions of metal filaments to use for his lights and in 1879 he filed another patent for an electric lamp that used a coiled carbon filament attached to platinum contact wires. This was of course based on the research of Woodward and  Evans.



1879-Lewis H. Latimer


Latimer, who was of African slave origins, was the true inventor of the light bulb, despite credit always being given to Edison. In 1879 while working with a rival inventor, Hiram Maxim, he created the first viable light bulb and many significant improvements to the lighting industry.

As this was a time of racism and the eugenics movement, Latimer, as an African American inventor, was not mentioned for his invention and the truth was concealed from history. Edison did make huge contributions towards the light bulb that we know today, and eventually his technology became accessible to the motor industry.

Lights on vintage vehicle


1880-Borrowed Ideas


At this time, there were several inventors using inferior bulbs in their research and were attempting to make them available commercially. One such inventor used multiple filaments in his bulb, including carbonized bamboo. Edison, borrowed and used this idea to create the first bulb that would not break, or burn, and would last for a few weeks.

The truth is Edison didn’t discover this benefit of carbonized bamboo until after the patent had been granted to him. The patent that was granted specified use of  carbon filament that could be created using cotton and linen thread, coiled papers, and coiled papers. The discovery of the carbonized bamboo was the official beginning of large-scale light bulb production. In 1880, the Edison Electric Company began to make its new product.


1898-The First Electric Headlamps


Although the electric light bulb had hit the market it took car manufacturers 18 years to incorporate them into vehicles. The first electric car headlights were introduced in 1898 on the Columbia Electric car. The Columbia Company specialised in building only electric vehicles and the low powered headlamps were offered as an optional accessory.

As we all well know vehicle headlights have come along way since then and we will be looking at the history and evolution in a further article to be released next month.

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