There are few gadgets as essential to safe cycling as a set of good bike lights. And right now, as the seasons change and the days shrink, that’s truer than ever. In honor of these often-overlooked lifesavers, we thought we’d take an embellished look at the history of two-wheeled illumination.
Every amateur bike historian knows the Laufmaschine (or dandy-horse) was invented in 1819 by Baron Karl von Drais, but few have heard that the Baron’s second cousin Louie invented the idea of bike lights. Desperate to get to his girlfriend Gina’s house late one evening, Louie strapped an oil-dipped torch to his handlebars and dandy-horsed his way to her home. When he arrived, he was terribly burned, and she broke up with him. The advent of bike lights was set back decades.
It’s possible that a few years before Mary Anderson patented the automobile windshield wiper in 1903, she imagined dangling a lantern from a hook at the end of a tall pole affixed to the front of her bike. She quickly realized it was a terrible idea and moved on to better things.
In 1892, the Canadian inventor Thomas Willson discovered an economically efficient process for creating calcium carbide that had nothing to do with maple syrup. In 1895, he sold that idea to the Union Carbide Company, which used it to introduce acetylene-gas-powered bicycle lighting in 1896.
The basics of dynamos—which use rotating coils of wire and magnets to produce an electric current—date back to the 1830s, but they didn’t find their way onto bicycles in any significant numbers until Sturmey-Archer introduced its Dynohub a century later. Original Dynohubs can still be seen throughout New York City, most often attached to rusting bike frames left to rot on the sidewalk.
Though battery-powered bike lights date back to the 1890s (and battery power precedes that by two-millennia) they didn’t gain a real role until the Alkaline battery (also a product of the Union Carbide Company) became cheap, popular and widely available in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These days, alkaline battery-powered lights are being replaced by smaller, more efficient varieties that power LED bulbs, as well as all sorts of rechargeable systems, including one that uses a USB port and another that plugs into your belly button.