Old Steam Locomotive Carbon Arc Headlights
Locomotives began brandishing dazzling electric carbon arc headlights toward the end of the nineteenth century. These locomotive searchlights were rapidly replacing the dim oil and acetylene headlights on the old steam engines of the past. The horizontal light beams of those blazing electric furnaces illuminated the rails far ahead, while their brilliant vertical shafts of light, like those illustrated below, shot high in the sky to warn unwitting pedestrians, automobiles, and other trains of the oncoming danger over twenty miles away.
Nineteenth-century types of locomotive carbon arc lights
powered by an electric generator located in the baggage car
Although the illuminating power of carbon arc headlights was far superior to that of the older kerosene and acetylene lamps, some railroad officials considered them a menace to safety. They tended temporarily to blind the engineers in oncoming trains and sometimes their brilliance changed the color characteristics of some railway signals. Furthermore, the reflection of the light could temporarily blind an engineer in his own cab under certain weather conditions. This is evidenced in a letter, dated May 22, 1909, addressed to Theodore H. Curtis, the Superintendent of Machinery for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company. Therein, Mr. D. E. Kelly, a Traveling Engineer for the same company, wrote:
“In February 1901, our Company, on account of the heavy passenger travel between New Orleans and Montgomery, rented engine 16 from the Western Railway of Alabama, to be used on the Mobile & Montgomery Division, in passenger service.
“This engine was equipped with an electric [carbon arc] headlight, and I had the experience of being on the engine one night during a heavy rain storm. The rain was falling in torrents and the reflection of the electric light against the rain was such that the light was reflected back into the cab so bright that we could not see anything ahead of the engine. We were on a north-bound passenger train, and as the engine approached the south switch at Fort Deposit, Ala., we could not see the switch lamps at all. If we should have been flagged by a flagman, we could not have seen him; in fact, we were running through the rain at least 15 minutes, during which time we did not see anything ahead of the engine, on account of the strong reflection of light on the rain, reflecting it back into the cab, which, in a manner, blinded us to such an extent that we could not see ahead of our engine.
“Until I had this experience with engine 16, I was an electric headlight enthusiast, but I have been convinced through this experience and others which I had with this engine, that the electric headlight is too dazzling to have on a locomotive.”
This convenient letter, along with various comparison-tests of the superior qualities of old oil lamps to newer arc lights, in regards to safety, was submitted as evidence by Mr. Curtis to convince the Alabama legislature in 1911 not to pass House Bill 383, entitled “AN ACT REQUIRING THE USE OF ELECTRIC OR POWER HEADLIGHTS ON ALL LOCOMOTIVE ENGINES.” His underlying motive for fighting a better means of railway illumination may have been his fear of the cost of installation, operation, and maintenance that his company would incur with the acceptance of carbon arc lights.
Another illustration of the intense brilliancy
of the electric carbon arc locomotive headlamp
Nevertheless, in the illustration below, we see in front of the smokestack an example of a self-contained engine and dynamo that powered the safe, low voltage, arc lamp employed in the early twentieth century. No internal lubrication was required for the small steam turbine engine, directly coupled to the dynamo, which provided the current for the light. The dynamo ran at 1,800 revolutions per minute and was directly coupled to the engine without the intervention of any speed-multiplying devices such as a belt, pulleys, gears, etc. This technological advancement was already safely and successfully employed on a number of speedy passenger trains by 1901, when the letter above
A Baldwin locomotive and tender with an Edwards turbine engine, dynamo
and carbon arc light mounted in front of the smokestack
Sandpapering the commutator on the dynamo of a locomotive arc lamp,
and a diagram of its arc light regulator
However, the arc lamp needed careful attention for its proper operation. Under a heading “The Electric Headlight,” a 1901 Treatise on the Locomotive and the Air Brake advised that
“Scrupulous cleanliness will prove the greater factor toward securing a perfect light. Engineers should give the headlight their personal attention for a few moments each day. When engines are pooled, some competent person should have the care of the lights. Reflectors should be cleaned the same as with oil lights. Carbons should be kept in a dry place and prevented from jarring around in boxes, causing fractures that lead to road failures. As all light generates heat, the trouble experienced by the cracking of the glass in the headlight has been met by moving the glass 5 or 6 inches forwards of the usual position. Cutting the glass in two sections has also been practiced, and an oval or bent glass will last indefinitely.”
The was the special train of Prince H. R. H. Henry of Prussia in the Chicago,
Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway station at Milwaukee, March 4, 1902.
"The photograph was taken at 9 p. m. by the light of the searchlight headlights,"
stated the 1902 edition of Our Wonderful Progress.
"This is the latest device for averting collisions, as the piercing rays can be seen
for many miles along the track and flashing against the sky"
With reference to the problems encountered by engineers being blinded by the arc lights on engines traveling in the opposite direction, the distinguishing of the colors on railroad signs and signals, or even the reflections from rain, the solutions were found in filament or so-called “incandescent lights” of the time. Under the heading “Incandescent Lights,” which is an ignorant but common historical misnomer used for just electric filament lamps when arc lights are also incandescent, the treatise went on to explain:
“A small number of locomotives have been equipped with a special incandescent circuit used to illuminate the running gear, etc. Where such an arrangement is made use of, a 16-candlepower incandescent lamp is placed inside of the reflector with the arc lamp. By means of a suitable switch, the arc light can be cut out and the incandescent lamp cut in, thus making it easier for opposing trains to approach, with the additional advantage of lighting up the exterior of the locomotive and materially assisting in the case of breakdowns, etc. This circuit must be such as will offer the same resistance as the arc light. The switch is placed in the cab at some point convenient to the engineer."
If reluctant railroad companies, like the Louisville & Nashville, would have been willing to spend a little money on installing this nifty solution, then their complaints against House Bill 383, ten years later, probably would have never materialized.
AN ILLUSTRATION AND NOTES
The searchlight on the pilot house of the yacht Varuna and a Sperry Searchlight
Locomotive engineers were not the only navigators affected by the brilliance of a carbon arc light. If the pilot of a riverboat, pleasure craft, or seagoing vessel happened to be directly on the other end of the dazzling beam of an electric mirror, or carbon arc searchlight, the granddaddy of the locomotive arc lamp, it could cause him to suffer temporary blindness and result in a maritime collision. In other words, for health and safety reasons, carbon arc searchlights as well as headlamps had to be maneuvered very carefully. In the late nineteenth century, one of the rules of the New York, Seawanhaka, Corinthian, Sear, Larchmont & Eastern Yacht Clubs stated:
"A search-light should be carefully handled and its beams should never be thrown on the pilot-house or on the helmsman of a yacht or boat underway." The general rules and regulations prescribed by the Board of Supervising Inspectors of the Steam Boat Inspection Service carried penalties for the careless use of a searchlight on board a vessel. Rule 10, Section 10 stated: "Any master or pilot of any steam vessel who shall flash or cause to be flashed the rays of the search-light into the pilot house of a passing vessel shall be deemed guilty of misconduct and shall be liable to have his license suspended or revoked."
This rule certainly points to the dangerous character of carbon arc headlights employed on other vehicles beside old steam locomotives.
This page was last modified on Wednesday, January 20, 2016