In the spotlight: The evolution of the car headlight

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  We look at the car headlight history, a part of the automobile many people take for granted. 

• From the open flame of Acetylene-fuelled light to the light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that are fitted to modern cars. 

• The headlight is one of the most critical parts of a vehicle and integral to keeping its occupants and pedestrians safe. 



One of the most noticeable features of a car is its headlights. One could say they provide a view into a car's soul.In the early days of the automobile, headlights prioritised 'form over function'. As new technology filtered its way into the industry, headlights were a stylistic feature.

Headlight shapes with sharper angles produced a sterner, angrier 'face' while a rounder headlight shape offered a 'softer' look. A good example is the Volkswagen Beetle or original or Alec Issigonis' original 1959 Mini.

The car headlight has travelled a long journey from the 1880s to the present day and undergone various high and low beams along the way.

We look at a timeline of the humble headlight to the tour de force it has become today.

As you can imagine, back in the 1880s, carmakers didn't know too much about how to illuminate the space ahead of the car.

The highly unstable Acetylene-fuelled lamp (that had to be lit by hand) was more popular as it wasn't too badly affected by wind or rain.

A mirror placed behind the lamp to help direct the light forward. They didn't work too well, and instead of focusing the light ahead, the illumination was scattered. It's bizarre to imagine that an open flame was used as a headlight.

About 30 years later, in 1910, the next technology arrived in the form of electric headlights, according to esoteric trivia website, liveaboutAn electric bulb replaced the flame, and in 1912 Cadillac debuted the first modern electric headlight system.

The United States carmaker connected its electrical ignition system with the headlights, and this technology is still used today.

However, the major downside was that these bulbs frequently fused, leaving drivers in dangerous positions by driving in total darkness.

The lack of adequate lighting from headlights caused many accidents as motorists didn't have any viewing range ahead.

1962 will be remembered for the Cuban missile crisis. However, it's also a significant year for headlight progression.

By adding inert gas to an incandescent bulb resulting in what we know as an early example of the halogen headlight.

It took a couple of years to gather steam, but more cars were fitted with halogen headlights by the second half of the 1960s, making cars a lot safer.

The increased range offered by halogen lights meant drivers could see far ahead, especially with the high beam activated.

Significant strides were made to improve halogen lights, and the simple by filling with halogen gas guaranteed an almost uniformly high radiance throughout the entire service life.

"Unlike conventional incandescent lights, no vaporised metal was deposited on the glass bulb by the filament," says the Volkswagen Group.

In the early 1990s, the next chapter of headlights shone to prominence in the form of Xenon and high-intensity discharge (HID) bulbs.

In its simplest form, a Xenon is an illuminating gas , according to CarBuyer. They produce light by "a combination of Xenon and metal salts in the quartz glass bodies, while electronic ballasts generated arcs of light inside a gas bulb," Volkswagen says.

Xenon lights use specific assemblies that ensure the light source is focused in the correct place, and thus carmakers could swivel the bulb when cornering to illuminate areas where the car's tyres placed.

The latest and most widely available technologies are LEDs or light-emitting diodes. Compared to a halogen light that uses a wire filament, LEDs use a semiconductor that releases photons of light when an electric charge is applied.

LEDs have replaced Xenons and have become a lot cheaper in recent years. They use a quarter of the energy of a regular Halogen bulb and generate three times the light.

LED bulbs are lighter and last longer than halogen or xenon bulbs. The headlight emits a bluish beam that illuminates an area clearly and doesn't blind motorists in oncoming traffic thanks to dipped beam technology.

Newer advancements in headlights have seen high-end cars use laser and OLED technology, but the five sources of light we mentioned are the ones in the history books for now.

Who knows what might happen in the next 100 years of the car?

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