Our Forefixers: The Lighting Innovators

Just as TV is enjoying a unrivaled era of quality programming, the automotive industry is experiencing a golden age of lighting. Today, manufacturers use everything from halogen to LED technology in order to illuminate the road, brighten the cabin, and make vehicles more visible to other drivers. But early in their history, headlamps were little more than acetylene lanterns (like those used in the early days of mining). Brake lights didn’t even exist.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane and learn more about three people who were instrumental in getting auto lighting to where it is now.

James Allison

This American entrepreneur invented the first headlight assembly. Allison was a co-founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Prest-O-Lite, a company originally specializing in concentrated acetylene gas. The chemical compound was used to fuel portable lamps popular with miners because of its resistance to wind and rain, and for the same reason was adapted for use on vehicles in the late 1880s. A pressurized acetylene-filled canister would feed out to an opening in front of a reflecting mirror, similar to a modern headlight lens housing. Activating a switch inside the cabin caused a spark to ignite the brightly burning gas. Before that, such as on the world’s first production automobile, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, there was simply no formal lighting hardware available.

John Voevodsky

It turns out a psychologist, not an engineer, was responsible for inventing the Center High Mount Stop Lamp—otherwise known as the third brake light—in 1974. Californian John Voevodsky was researching car accidents and set up a study in which a portion of a group of San Francisco city taxis was outfitted with an additional brake light at the base of the back window. At the end of 10 months, they discovered that the cabs sporting the extra bit of equipment had 60.6 percent fewer rear-end collisions than those without. The third brake light was born.

HID headlight

Robert Reiling

While high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights didn’t appear in North America until 1991 via the BMW 7 Series full-size luxury sedan, the first successful example was actually developed in 1962 by a man named Robert Reiling. He improved upon earlier designs and created a reliable gas-discharge lighting system that formed the basis for contemporary HIDs. Two tungsten electrodes inside a bulb produce a powerful electric charge, which interacts with xenon gas and metal salts present to produce plasma, together creating the signature intense light.

Did we miss any vehicle lighting Forefixers? Share what you know in the comments.


  1. Robert Flynn says:

    I would like to see glass headlight lens return, or at least non-fogging, headlight lens. The current headlight lens that yellow and/or fog up over time end up diminishing the effectiveness of the headlight, becoming a safety issue and unattractive in look. I think it’s time for the auto industry to address this issue. If not glass, I’m sure the technology exists to rectify this problem.
    Thank you

    • i think it is a rip off to pay 300 dollars up to 900 for a plastic headlight when a 10 dollar glass bulb worked just fine

    • Robert Thomas says:

      You can still get glass lenses for some makes/models of cars. I have a set of glass lenses on OEM housings with Hid projector retrofits on my wife’s car. Works great. Another solution is a sacrificial lenses cover like Xpel, Laminex, etc. are available and easy to apply. The many headlight restoration kits quickly make the lenses look like new. All you need is an hour, a cordless drill and some patience. Lastly, there are some spray on restorers that make the lenses look new. Since it takes 80-100K before a lense starts looking ratty, it’s annoying but not a big deal to fix.

    • With headlight covers now part of the design of cars/trucks, a complete replacement unit in glass is not economical. Further, glass tends to chip and crack when hit by gravel and other road debris. Plastic solves that problem, but does tend to discolor. Some companies offer a clear vinyl skin to cover OEM glass lenses, which help prevent chips and cracks. I agree, glass is better. There are some aftermarket offerings of glass lenses as replacements for cracked or chipped units.

  2. Thomas Jansen says:

    Chrysler had third brake light on their 1948 Plymouth mounted over the license plate.

    • “Chrysler had third brake light on their 1948 Plymouth mounted over the license plate.”

      That light was the ONLY brake light for certain Dodges and Plymouth.

  3. No love for the Sealed Beam?

  4. The lighting history article is not correct. Mercedes-Benz had HID lighting in Europe in 1989 and came to the R129 in the U.S. in 1990. That would make the comment of the BMW having it first in 1991 first inaccurate.

    • The cab company may have proved it was effective, but Plymouth, Buick, and a few other cars in the ’40s had center trunk emblem stop lamps mounted higher than the tail lights….how easy history is forgotten !

      For an alterative to HID, “brighter than halogen” sealed beams are available on line.

  5. Voevodsky also developed a flashing brake light in the late 70s where the pulses increased in speed as the deceleration increased(harder braking produced shorter interval flashes). Sold mostly for motorcycles it utilized a series of mercury switches set at an increasing angle. Very effective at reducing rear end collisions. A true visionary. Things were simpler when 3 (later 6) varieties of sealed beams handled the vast majority of cars.

  6. In some cases the HID lighting has been carried to extreme by mostly pickup drivers that think they are lighting the field for the METS to play ball even to the point of being a hazard to oncoming drivers. Time for some discretion people.

  7. It would be nice if the lights in development today took into consideration the brightness that blinds oncoming traffic and makes it impossible for me to see the road when a car is coming right at me.

  8. Jerry Garfield says:

    The sealed beam headlamp was invented in my hometown of Cleveland Ohio in 1939 by GE at their Nela Park facility.

  9. Third brake lights were mandated by law in Sept. 1985 for all 1986 and newer passenger cars produced for the U.S., (and Canadian) markets. Trucks and mini-vans were exempted from this, (-my ’85 Voyager didn’t have one, but I’m getting as foggy as my headlight lenses about that fact.) Third brake-lights were a hot commodity on Fathers’ Day, birthdays and Christmases for a number of years thereafter they were mandated during the Reagan era, despite the administration’s tenet of decreasing regulations. Now, LED bulbs allow stopping distances of up to 60 feet less due to their near instantaneous illumination versus incandescent filaments. The milliseconds allow for drivers following to hit the brakes that much more quickly.

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