Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Headlights for Horses?

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably come to realize that it’s anybody’s guess as to what each week’s topic will cover.  In fact, if you ask my wife, she’d probably say that’s just the way my attention deficit mind works; bouncing from one point to another.  The reality is that the overall category of western vehicles is so large there’s a world of information rolling around out there.  With that said, I doubt anyone could have imagined the focus of today’s blog. 

Between the travel and extensive amount of research we’re able to pack into each year, I’m fortunate to be able to explore countless early vehicle designs and related accessories.  Today’s post, though, may push the boundaries of what most of us might consider believable.  With that teaser as a backdrop, you might want to file this one under the “You Gotta Be Kidding Me” segment of horse-drawn vehicle history. 

Not long ago, I was reviewing a century-plus-old sales pamphlet we have in our Archives.  It was promoting the “Richards System of Electric Lighting for Horse Drawn Vehicles.”  Sounds basic enough.  Upon further inspection though, this piece isn’t referring so much to lights positioned on the vehicle as it is to lights placed on the draft animal.  Yep, we’re talking about hanging lights on horses.

Proclaimed as “Shadowless, Scientific, and Satisfactory,” this vehicle headlight was worn by the draft animal and promoted by The Richards Horse Headlight Works in Bethel, Connecticut.

Before we snicker too much, these folks did have a good point in that the traditional method of placing lights on the vehicle – behind the horse(s) – did make it tough to always see the terrain ahead with sufficient clarity.   According to the sales piece, the answer to this lack of sight was to move the light ahead of the animal.  The biggest challenge to this solution seems to be the stability of the light as well as the potential for dramatic shadows to dart back and forth in front of the horse.

For those who may be wondering – Yes, this idea was patented!  Applied for in the spring of 1906, the patent was awarded in early 1908 to Mr. E.L. Richards of Litchfield, Connecticut.  The introduction of the patent states that…

“…it has been attempted from time to time to provide a means for carrying a lamp so that the rays of light will fall directly in front of the horse, as for instance by fastening it to the breast collar or shafts; but it has been found that a very great amount of motion and jarring was imparted to the lamp when carried in such positions.” 

The description goes on to proclaim…

“… This device is readily applied to the horse when occasion may demand, and may be readily removed, and will when in position fit the neck securely but not uncomfortably, and hold the lamp from vibration...”

Patented more than a century ago, this “headlight for horses” was designed to provide greater visibility for night time operation of horse drawn vehicles.


Ultimately, the idea was built on a three-fold premise; it was to be worn by the horse, unobstructed by the horse, and be carried in the “most steady manner.”  In spite of what were surely the best intentions, there’s no evidence that the concept ever caught on.  That said, the notion is so unique that any surviving examples may have trouble being recognized today.  Perhaps this post can help someone identify and preserve another extremely rare – and different – fragment of America’s first transportation industry.