CC History: “Midnight Motoring” • the Dawn of Driving (and Dazzle) in the Dark

Over a hundred years ago, the big innovation in vehicular lighting was its very existence. Gas-flame headlamps, they were, fuelled by acetylene created en route by drizzling water on canned calcium carbide, then piped to the headlamps.

With these new devices, motorists could venture forth on the primitive, hazard-fraught, sparsely-populated roads after dark. This article called “Midnight Motoring”, from the October 1907 issue of ‘American Country Life’ magazine, waxes poetic—at times rhapsodic—about the pleasures and astonishments of driving at night. Click to get the full article as a PDF:

Look at the description of the new acetylene headlamps, which are said to produce a bright, white light—sound familiar?—versus the previous oil-wick lights which burned with a wan, yellow flame capable only of (barely) advertising the equipped vehicle’s presence, not of lighting the driver’s way.

These first real headlamps were full-time high beams; upon meeting another driver (of motorcar or horse), the expectation was to throw a towel over at least the offside lamp or, on the fancier installations, operate a lever that would physically tilt the lamps downward or outward. These were the foundational steps toward our (where our means everyone in the whole wide world except the United States) present luxurious position of intelligent glare-free high beams of bright white LED or laser light coming from headlamps that look like sculptured jewellery and consume only a dozen watts or so apiece. It’s a hell of a thing to reflect—or project—on the immense progress made in the 114 intervening years between when it was written and when you are reading it.

I’ve appended a related article to the PDF, “Suggestions on Automobile Driving”, from the same magazine. About half this second article is devoted to the proper use and (extensive) maintenance of the new acetylene headlamps. Almost everyone knows how distressing it is to be suddenly blinded (…) by the glare of an acetylene headlight, and how difficult it is to keep cool and do the right thing if the car carrying the light is moving fast and there are other vehicles, it says—this, too, sounds familiar to us in 2021; that situation still exists, only without the acetylene. The more things change, the more they stay the same!