Heads-up on Headlamps

What is a Headlamp?

Practically, a headlamp is a light source that enables the user to use both hands and direct the light with a turn of the user’s head. The actual lamp may be fitted on the user’s head with some straps or with head gear that uses straps or mounting placements. It may even be called a headlamp if a flashlight is mounted on the user’s head or headgear with duct tape. So long as the light source is mounted on the head and creates a means for which the user can use both upper appendages - it’s a headlamp.


These days they are commonly battery powered but there were headlamps in the old days, from the 1850s to the early part of the 1900s, that may have used candle power and oil-wick configurations. At the turn of the century, Carbide lamps or acetylene gas lamps started out and became the headlamp of choice until the 1930s when the technology of battery powered headlamps, which started several years later after the discovery of carbide lamps, took over as the superior headlamp.


We have to thank the mining industry for the developments of these headlamps because they never would have gotten to the mainstream market for regular joes like us to use in our adventures. Today, headlamps are used for various outdoor activities in the darkness of night or in locations where illumination is required. Activities such as caving, orienteering, hiking, skiing, backpacking, camping, mountaineering, mountain biking and a slew of others are now safer, easier and more enjoyable as we now have the advantage over the darkness. Although they continue to be used in underground mining, other professions now make it standard equipment like search and rescue, surgeons, and others that require hands-free lighting to better do their job.

Facts and Trivia

  • The very first known use of the word “headlamp” was in 1885 but these days there is some confusion when it comes to saying the word because of car headlamps.
  • The oil-wick cap lamp originated and was invented in Scotland. It was shaped like a kettle that was small enough to be hung on soft caps.
  • Carbide headlamps originated in the United States. A New York patent dated August 28, 1900 was made by Frederick Baldwin. Soon after they were standard equipment in the mining industry.
  • Carbide headlamps were also the rage back then for cavers because of their relative illumination per mass of fuel compared to battery powered headlamps.
  • Dr. Jonathon Palmer came up with the "Palmer furnace" partly because of the Carbide headlamps. Heat produced by the exothermic reaction was harnessed by taking the lamp’s warm exhaust gases into your shirt and creating a warm microenvironment. This is a feat no longer possible these days with modern headlamps. Although there are high power headlamps today that can replicate the heat, the drain on battery power may be too much for it to last long.
  • Thomas Edison started working on developing the electricity powered headlamps sometime in 1914 and devices in use by 1917 could run for 12 hours on a wet cell battery and produce 2 - 5 lumens of light.

I hope you got the heads-up on headlamps and you can look forward to more enlightening articles about various portable lighting systems.

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