The invention of the “modern” bicycle dates to the mid-1800’s and earlier, depending upon which source you consult. The early versions were called velocipedes and were propelled by the rider “walking” while seated on the wheeled vehicle. Many of the early designs were of European origin, the products of French, German and English ingenuity. Over the years, various improvements were made including steering, pneumatic tires, pedals and cranks, suspensions, gears, and other safety features. By the late 1800’s, the form of the bicycle would be as readily recognizable as those manufactured today.
As the bicycle gained popularity and became more affordable to the masses, so came the need for illumination for nighttime riding. They were most often fueled by kerosene or carbide/acetylene – our focus shall be on the former.
Bicycle lamps were manufactured by most, if not all, of the major American lamp makers – Edward Miller & Company, The Plume and Atwood Manufacturing Company, The Matthews and Willard Manufacturing Company, The Hitchcock Lamp Company, The Bridgeport Brass Company, Bristol Brass and Clock, and certainly others. Many of the lantern makers made bicycle lamps as well – R.E. Dietz, Peter Gray, C.T. Ham, and The Rose Manufacturing Company, maker of the Neverout. English manufacturer Joseph Lucas & Sons of Birmingham, England produced a full line of bicycle lamps, as did Powell & Hammer and Henry Miller.
The basic, overall design of the bicycle lamps remained relatively standard. They consist of a lamp or lantern housing (most often brass and sometimes nickel-plated), removable fount and burner, front lens and reflector, and some type of bracket for attaching the lamp to the bicycle. Most have a convex lens on the front to focus and concentrate the light. On the back of the inside of the housing, there is often a polished metal reflector to increase light output. There are often green or red glass jewels on the side or back of the lamp which function as side (green) and rear (red) markers. You may find cotton wadding in the founts that was placed there to prevent the oil from sloshing around.
The bottom portion of the housing is vented to permit the intake of combustion air and top of the lamp is vented to dissipate heat and smoke. The brackets vary from fixed style mountings to more complex, multi-spring mechanisms designed to absorb shock. The lamps could be mounted to the front tube or on the fork, depending upon the type of bracket purchased. The SEARCH LIGHT above is shown with a rigid bracket, the UNIQUE below has a spring bracket.
Advertisements for bicycle lamps were commonly found in ladies magazines like Munsey’s or The Cosmopolitan, trade journals and other publications of the period, especially in the late 1890’s. The advertisement on the left from The