It’s easy to take headlights for granted until you realize how terrible they used to be.

Think for a moment about a world without light. Not in the biblical sense of apocalyptic end-of-everything doom, but rather a world where the wonder of electricity isn’t harnessed to light up dark areas. Ford Motor Company wants to give everyone a taste of what that was like and how far we’ve come since the early days of electric power, which also happens to coincide with the early days of the automobile.

“In terms of lighting technology, we have come out of the dark ages,” said Michael Koherr, Ford’s lighting research engineer. “It is quite incredible what a fundamental difference these changes contribute in terms of road safety and driver comfort.”

That statement might be something of a head slapper, but for those who’ve never had the experience of driving an old car at night, it can be difficult to grasp just how good modern lighting systems are. Granted, cars travel much faster now than they did way back in the day, but anyone who’s doused the lights at even slow speed is aware of the pucker factor that comes from driving essentially blind.

“We have gone from what were essentially glorified candles to efficient and effective xenon and LED lights. In the future we’ll see more super-bright LED lights equipped to cars, which can actually help drivers remain alert. Visibility at night is now so much better. Like night and day,” said Koherr.


1908 Ford Model T
2016 Ford Mustang


The earliest cars literally used acetylene or oil lanterns that had to be lit by hand. They weren’t used so much for vision as they were to simply be visible to others at night. Early electric lights were an improvement but tended to burn out fast, and they were still extremely dim by modern standards.

Cadillac introduced the first modern electric headlamp system in 1912, followed a few years later by the first low-beam headlights from Guide Lamp Company. The high/low beam bulb appeared in 1924, but the true lighting revolution didn’t occur until 1962 when a bit of inert gas was added to a standard incandescent bulb. This increased both light output and longevity, and just like that the halogen headlamp was born.

Many modern cars still use halogen systems, but the next revolution is well underway. Xenon and LED lighting systems have generally three times the output versus halogens, while also lasting longer. Considering today’s cars are faster and more expensive than ever, that’s a good thing.

To make this live for you, check out the photo gallery for a look at automotive lighting systems through the years. Dare we say it’s an illuminating experience? Yes, we do – because it certainly is.

Source: Ford Motor Company


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