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The Sealed Beam Headlamp – A Major Innovation in Automotive Lighting

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The sealed beam headlamp, a major advance in automotive lighting was introduced after a three year long development program in August of 1939. General Electric in cooperation with other lamp manufacturers and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators publicly introduced the new headlamp at Nela Park, in Cleveland, Ohio, the site of the electric company’s laboratories where its lighting research was done.

The 1951 photo above shows GE automotive lighting engineers Val J. Roper, and George E. Meese with a Lincoln that the company was using twelve years later for testing various sealed beam lamps under actual driving conditions. The photo is via Retronaut and is courtesy of Cleveland History where you can learn the interesting story behind Nela Park. The very advanced facility, called the University of Light was one of the first industrial parks in the country that was first opened in 1913.

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The 1938 drawing above shows a design that GE received a patent for on February 21, 1939. You can clearly see the glass lens, #12 in the drawing and the rear reflector section, #11 which was aluminized by vaporization of the metal in a vacuum. The two sections of glass were then fused together by localized heating of a small portion of the two joined sections. The tungsten light filament, #23 and its support and wiring connectors behind it can also be seen. The assembly was filled with an inert gas to prolong the life of the lighting element. The complete details of the patent can be found here.

  •                  sbp1                            sbp2
  • An “Automobile Topics” August 21, 1939 article, introducing the new  lamp and telling of its development, features, necessary changes and its future

11 responses to “The Sealed Beam Headlamp – A Major Innovation in Automotive Lighting

  1. “It is also possible that this will bring about a greater use of the highways after dark, thereby eliminating some of the present daytime congestion.”

    Quite a statement for 1939, eh?

    I’m also impressed by the three-years of cooperation between various private groups, to develop and implement the new lighting system.

    If I recall correctly, wasn’t there also a 1930s-40s effort to add Edwin Land’s polarizing screens to headlights and windscreens, to reduce glare?

    Tom M.

  2. First vehicle to test and use sealed beams was the Mormon Meteor 3 which was using them on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1938. Marv Jenkins told me that the G.E. were present and were very happy with the results.

  3. It’s unfortunate that today there is not research anymore on the dazzling effects of the new blue lights . It’s seem there no regulation anymore .

  4. While a great safety advance and an excellent example of industry/government cooperation, the sealed beam is also an example of the problem with laws which specify “design” rather than “performance.”

    As we moved into the ’80s and ’90s headlamp design in Europe advanced far beyond simple sealed beams, but we were unable to use them for years due to archaic “design” based laws here in the states.

    • Dennis, I’ve always wondered why those laws were implemented, especially since it was state by state and not federally. Does anyone know the story or reasoning behind it?

  5. I don’t recall the manufacturer but it seems like Chrysler used sealed beams that had a steel cup with a “bulb” inside. As they aged moisture would get in and darken the reflector. As a matter of fact I have a 87 Dodge Daytona with concealed lights that are stored vertically. The oe lights were steel/glass and due to the stored position would fill with water when they lost their seal. The only advantage is if the lens is damaged they will still work(for awhile).

  6. The major carmakers all seemed to introduce sealed beam headlights around 1940. I sell automotive stock footage, and this article reminded me of a clip from an impossibly rare 1940 Nash promotional film that I bought from John Conde. Check it out via Getty Images.

  7. Greetings,
    There is a photo of my uncle, who was a supervisor in the auto lab at NELA Park, kneeling with a single headlight in front of a 1956 Chrysler, in 1956. As I recall, he mentioned some of the 1956 cars would have the quad headlights.
    EK

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