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Toadmaster

Headlights, roads and road maps in the 1920s

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I started down this path as a response to another thread, but decided to start a new post instead. Yes, I found myself with time on my hands and quite a rabbit hole to follow.

 

Driving at night in the modern era has become routine, but it was far more of a challenge in the past. 

 

Headlights

The first motor cars used oil, or kerosene lanterns just like the horse and carriage before them. Portable carbide / acetylene lights were introduced in 1892. By 1900 both carbide and electric lights were being used on automobiles for forward illumination. Early electric lights operated independently from the cars engine using a battery or dynamo to provide electricity for the lights. The bulbs were quite fragile and the systems very expensive. As a result carbide headlights were much more common on cars until about 1911 when electric lights began to overtake them. 

 

In 1912 Cadillac introduced the first car where the lights were integrated into the cars electrical system. Cadillac also made an electric starter standard the same year.

In 1915 Massachusetts was the first US State to require headlights on automobiles. The law required the lights be capable of illuminating a substantial object 150 feet from the vehicle. Other states quickly followed, and the first Federal lighting standards were set in 1921.

"Dimable" lights appeared around 1915. These lights featured a movable reflector which could be pointed down to reduce the glare to oncoming cars. The earliest required that the driver exit the vehicle and manually adjust the setting. Later versions could be controlled from the drivers seat. The first two filament (high / low beam) lights resembling modern automotive lights were introduced in 1924.

The modern sealed beam type automotive headlight was invented in 1936 and became the standard in the US in 1939-40. It would remain the automotive standard in the US for more than 40 years. Improved lights using an inert halogen gas began to appear in Europe in the 1960s, but did not become common in the US until the 1980s. 

 

How effective were these lights?

In the United States the current standard for light projection requires that a human sized target be identifiable at minimum of 160 feet (48.5m) using low beams, and 350 feet (106m) when using high beams. Tests done in 2015 have shown that modern headlights far exceed these minimums. Most cars equipped with halogen headlights are capable of illuminating the required target at 300 feet (91m) and 400 feet (121m), while cars with more advanced lighting systems (LED, HID, projector lamps) are effective in excess of 400 feet (121m) and 500 feet (151.5m).

By comparison the early cars were only capable of illuminating a target perhaps 50-100 feet (15-30m) directly in front of the vehicle. Between 1915 and 1940 most headlights could reach out to a distance of around 150 feet (45.5m). Unlike modern cars which illuminate a sizable area in front of the vehicle, these early headlights tended to have a tight focus like a spot light shining little light on the ground or to either side.

As with today there were more capable lights available for those willing to pay. In 1917 Corning Conophore offered a carbide headlight claimed to be capable of illuminating a road sign at 500 feet.

 

The early lights were also more complicated to use. Prior to 1912 electric lights operated from an independent system using a battery that had to be recharged, or a dynamo which generated electricity as the wheel it was attached to turned (similar to some modern bicycle headlights). Later lights were integrated into the cars electrical system which simplified matters. The early bulbs were quite delicate, the normal life of a headlight bulb for a 1925 Ford Model T was only estimated to be 50 hours.

Carbide lights had their own issues. The light was created by burning acetylene gas, so these lights had a slight fire / explosion risk and required frequent cleaning, removing soot from the reflector / lens and cleaning residue off of the nozzle. Acetylene gas was produced by dripping water onto calcium carbide which was then burned in the light. In cold weather the water tank freezing was an issue. Alternately some used a tank of pressurized (and flammable) acetylene gas to power the lights. The tank required periodic refilling as well as having a risk of fire / explosion if damaged or leaking.   

 

Roads

While most cities had, had street lights since the early 19th century, rural streets and highways were generally unlit.

In 1912 the US had 2.2 million miles of improved roads, less than 10% were paved (in 2018 the US has a total of 4.1 million miles of road with 2.7 million of that paved).

In 1913 the Lincoln Highway, a transcontinental highway from New York City to San Francisco was dedicated. The highway crossed through 14 states. When proposed the goal was to have a paved highway crossing the nation by 1915. At that time there was little support for highways from State or Federal governments and most construction was done through private donations. Due to a lack of funding, the last segment of the highway was not paved until 1938. In 1916 it was estimated that it would take a traveler 30 days to complete the journey by automobile.  

In 1919 the U.S Army drove a truck convoy from Washington DC to San Francisco to determine the feasibility of moving troops across the country by road. Using 81 trucks the journey took 62 days at an average speed of 6 mph. At that time more than 1/2 of the roads the convoy had to travel on were unimproved, some simply old wagon trails. There were few standards for road building from state to state.   

Prior to 1921 road construction and maintenance was largely left to local communities and the individuals who used the roads. Between 1921 and 1956 most roads were built by the individual states with very limited support from the Federal Government.

Late in 1926 the official US Highway numbering system was adopted. 

In 1940 the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened becoming the first controlled access highway (freeway) in the US. Initially it had no speed limit, but in 1941 the speed limit was set at 70mph.  

The Interstate highway system was authorized by Congress in 1944, but it wasn't until the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 that any funding was provided. It was completed in 1975.

 

US road maps 1920-29 US Library of Congress

https://www.loc.gov/maps/?dates=1920-1929&fa=subject:roads|location:united+states

Edited by Toadmaster
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Great research.  So jumping in the car and driving to the next town wasn't something you'd do casually even in the daytime.  All those old movies and radio shows where travelers get benighted just below that spooky mansion on the hill suddenly make more sense.  It became cliche but travel by automobile really was an adventure.

Edited by seneschal
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This would make a perfect PDF to add to the download folder here at BRP Central!

What paving material did they use? Here in Sweden gravel was often upgraded first to cobblestones, then tarmac much later. 

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When I ran Mansion of Madness and my players needed to go from Boston to near Pittsburgh, I explained to them how ridiculous of a journey that was in a car.  500 miles would likely take them three days at best.  It would be super uncomfortable and they would have to bring many spare parts. They elected to take a train over that distance.

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Whereas on the modern interstate highway system a 500-mile auto journey would take about 8 hours barring mishaps and snack/bathroom stops.  The past really is a different country.

Any idea how long that Boston to Pittsburgh train ride would have taken?

Edited by seneschal

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The 1919 Army expedition was taken to see if it was possible to move military materials across the country by road. At that time ship and rail were the preferred methods.

 

I found this quote relating to travelling the Lincoln Highway

 

Quote

During the early years, a trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific on the Lincoln Highway was, according to the LHA's 1916

 Official Road Guide, "something of a sporting proposition." The LHA estimated the trip would take 20 to 30 days, but that assumed the motorist could average a driving time of 18 miles an hour.

At a time when a service infrastructure to support the automobile did not exist, the guide urged motorists to buy gasoline at every opportunity, no matter how little had been used since the last purchase. Motorists were advised to wade through water before fording it with their vehicle and to avoid drinking alkali water ("Serious cramps result"). Firearms weren't needed, but full camping equipment was, especially west of Omaha, Nebraska. The guide advised motorists to select camp sites early ("If you wait until dark you may be unable to find a spot free from rocks"). Equipment needed included chains, a shovel (medium size), axe, jacks, tire casings and inner tubes, a set of tools, and, of course, 1 pair of Lincoln Highway Penants. In view of the mud the motorist could expect to travel through, the guide offered one bit of practical advice without further comment: "Don't wear new shoes."

 

There is a lot of good info out there on the early road systems. I was actually a little surprised to see the Dept of Transportation takes their history pretty seriously.

https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/highwayhistory/history_misc.cfm

 

One thing I found interesting was the lack of information about highway lighting, the first use, when it became commonplace etc and then it occurred to me that my comment

 
rural streets and highways were generally unlit.

is still true in much of the country outside of the interstate highway system.

 

Thanks for the comments. I didn't start off intending to cover so much ground, it was just one of those things where you pick at a corner and pretty soon you've pulled the wall paper off half the wall.

 

 

I seem to have run into a weird issue with the quote function...  I love the phrase Something of a sporting proposition in regards to travelling a highway. 😂 

Edited by Toadmaster
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I seem to be having 

9 hours ago, clarence said:

This would make a perfect PDF to add to the download folder here at BRP Central!

What paving material did they use? Here in Sweden gravel was often upgraded first to cobblestones, then tarmac much later. 

 

How does one add something to the download folder?

 

The most basic was simply graded dirt, oiled or "hardend" roads was probably the next step up. Spraying oil on the dirt helps to hold things together and keep the dust down. This was common into the 1980s when the environmental issues became apparent.

Gravel, shells, bricks, rock, asphalt, and concrete were available by the early 20th century and used for roads, so they pretty much had access to the same materials we use today. The big issue was money, there was great resistance in the US to using taxes to pay for roads. 

There were places that used wood planks, but I think that was more of an in town thing. I imagine that was quite labor intensive and hell on the local forests. 

Edited by Toadmaster

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6 hours ago, Toadmaster said:

The most basic was simply graded dirt, oiled or "hardend" roads was probably the next step up.

Oiled gravel was typical of streets in the Midwest when I was growing up in the 60s/early 70s.  Then began to be commonly replaced by asphalt.  Concrete always used for highways there to reduce buckling in summer heat/winter cold.

9 hours ago, seneschal said:

Whereas on the modern interstate highway system a 500-mile auto journey would take about 8 hours barring mishaps and snack/bathroom stops.  The past really is a different country.

Even by late 1930's it was a very different story.  One of my dad's cousins regularly travelled cross-country and sent postcards from stops, usually when in a new state and always getting the local postmarks.  For instance, from a series of cards sent in Sept 1940:

Sept 12, 3:30pm - Hartford, CT

Sept 13, 1:30pm - Portsmouth, NH

Sept 13, 5:30pm - Portland, ME

Sept 14, 4pm - Boston, MA

Sept 16, 5pm - Trenton, NJ

Sept 18, 2pm - Charleston, WV

Sept 24, 9:30am - Terre Haute, IN

Sept 25, 11:30am - Saint Louis, MO

Sept 28, 10am - Albuquerque, NM

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16 hours ago, Toadmaster said:

 

How does one add something to the download folder?

I’m on my iPhone, so it might not look the same on a computer, but there’s a ’Submit file’ button at the bottom of the Downloads screen. It’s been a while since I added something, but I think it’s an easy process. 

And thanks for the responses on paving materials. It’s safe to say that dirt or gravel were most common I assume?

I mentioned cobblestones upthread, but I think paving stone was the term I was looking for. 8-10 centimeter cubes of granite covered some streets and roads here in Sweden in the 1920s. I live in an old shipyard and huge areas of perfectly laid paving stones remain intact - despite being neglected for 50+ years. But gravel dominated on the countryside.

Edited by clarence

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Several of the older towns in Oklahoma have brick paving in the original downtown area.  Hard to replace since they are specially fired paving bricks instead of the softer building variety.

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17 hours ago, jajagappa said:

Oiled gravel was typical of streets in the Midwest when I was growing up in the 60s/early 70s.  Then began to be commonly replaced by asphalt.  Concrete always used for highways there to reduce buckling in summer heat/winter cold.

Even by late 1930's it was a very different story.  One of my dad's cousins regularly travelled cross-country and sent postcards from stops, usually when in a new state and always getting the local postmarks.  For instance, from a series of cards sent in Sept 1940:

Sept 12, 3:30pm - Hartford, CT

Sept 13, 1:30pm - Portsmouth, NH

Sept 13, 5:30pm - Portland, ME

Sept 14, 4pm - Boston, MA

Sept 16, 5pm - Trenton, NJ

Sept 18, 2pm - Charleston, WV

Sept 24, 9:30am - Terre Haute, IN

Sept 25, 11:30am - Saint Louis, MO

Sept 28, 10am - Albuquerque, NM

 

It might just be semantics as I'm not a road engineer, but "oiled gravel" sounds like what they call chip sealing around here. Gravel with a thin asphalt or other sticky binder holding it all together. A less durable, and much cheaper alternate to asphalt, but a better road than plain dirt or gravel.

I was a bit shocked to see that the Pennsylvania Turnpike had a 70mph speed limit in 1940. That is a pretty impressive increase, from an average speed of 18mph in 1916 to 70 mph in 1940, a 52mph increase in 24 years. I would think that a lot of cars on the road in 1940 would struggle to make it to 60mph. I've got a 1952 GMC pickup and the only way it's going 70mph is if I drive it off a cliff.

 

7 hours ago, clarence said:

I’m on my iPhone, so it might not look the same on a computer, but there’s a ’Submit file’ button at the bottom of the Downloads screen. It’s been a while since I added something, but I think it’s an easy process. 

And thanks for the responses on paving materials. It’s safe to say that dirt or gravel were most common I assume?

I mentioned cobblestones upthread, but I think paving stone was the term I was looking for. 8-10 centimeter cubes of granite covered some streets and roads here in Sweden in the 1920s. I live in an old shipyard and huge areas of perfectly laid paving stones remain intact - despite being neglected for 50+ years. But gravel dominated on the countryside.

 

Cobblestone and brick were used in the US as well, but I would expect mostly as streets in town. I found another comment on the Lincoln Highway, the plan was for a "rock highway" coast to coast which I took to mean paved (asphalt or concrete). Apparently rock highway referred to gravel. The reference to it being fully paved in 1938 used the term paved, so I think it is safe to say in 1938 there was a paved road across the USA.

 

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30 minutes ago, Toadmaster said:

It might just be semantics as I'm not a road engineer, but "oiled gravel" sounds like what they call chip sealing around here. Gravel with a thin asphalt or other sticky binder holding it all together. A less durable, and much cheaper alternate to asphalt, but a better road than plain dirt or gravel.

Yes, that's pretty much it.

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On 7/14/2018 at 10:43 AM, seneschal said:

Any idea how long that Boston to Pittsburgh train ride would have taken?

Great question.  I'm struggling to find specific timetables of the period.  For better or for worse, I told them 10 hours, including stops.  That isn't quite realistic maybe in that would be an average of 55 miles per hour, but maybe there was a direct express.  But hey, it was off the cuff.  A modern train takes 13 hours for that train journey, but train travel times are regressive nowadays compared to the 1920s.  Far more mechanical breakdowns and delays in modern times.

Edited by klecser

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Not Pittsburgh to Boston, but I found a reference to taking the train from Boston to San Francisco through Chicago in 1925.

Boston to Chicago took 18 hours, Chicago to San Francisco took 68-72 hours depending on route. That included the Ferry ride across the bay from Oakland, as the train did not actually go all the way into SF.  

 

Boston to Pittsburgh is only about half the distance so your 10 hour guess is probably pretty accurate.

 

This also shows the advantage of train vs car, 4 days in relative comfort vs 30 days of roughing it.

Edited by Toadmaster
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Here are the approximate travel times I use for Europe in my 1920s sci-fi game (with everyday technology similar to our own in the 1920s):

Automobile: 20 km per hour

Steamer: 30 km per hour

Train: 40 km per hour

Dirigible: 80-100 km per hour

Aeroplane: 150-170 km per hour

The numbers are based on real-world travel times in Sweden in the 1920s. To find out specific travel times, I usually cheat and measure the straight distance on a map (Gothenburg-Oslo 280 kilometres). By car it would take 14 hours. By train a leisurely 7 hours. If the PCs can get hold of an aeroplane, 2 hours.

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Let me add my thanks for all the research that went into this this thread.  I can see where automobile accidents while driving along narrow roads with inferior headlights would be more common.  Driving down a freeway at night, during a rainstorm, can be nerve wracking in 2018, I can only imagine how much worse it would be (even if at lower speeds) in 1928. 

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One of the tidbits I found out in one of my research binges was that the Mass state police were still riding horseback circuits until the late 20s because of road conditions and reliability of motor vehicles or lack thereof. They first switched to motorcycles and only later to cruisers.

And I'm pretty sure chip sealing is different than oiled gravel. Chip sealing, at least around here, is a resurface for an old pavement road done by laying down a layer of small gravel, then sealing it. It throws up the occasional piece of oily gravel for a week (if one believes the letter section of the local newspaper--that primarily happens to rich wash-ashores in white luxury SUVs which are RUINED!!! ), then rides rough for about six months, but cars eventually pulverize it into the existing road bed and it seems like a normal road. 

My memory is that oiled gravel is just some oil/sealer sprayed onto a dirt/gravel road without any other preparation at all. It's done primarily to avoid huge clouds of dust when a car goes over the road, but doesn't do much at all to act as a surface. My memory is the sprayer is almost like something a farmer would use to spray crops.

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8 hours ago, ORtrail said:

Let me add my thanks for all the research that went into this this thread.  I can see where automobile accidents while driving along narrow roads with inferior headlights would be more common.  Driving down a freeway at night, during a rainstorm, can be nerve wracking in 2018, I can only imagine how much worse it would be (even if at lower speeds) in 1928. 

We do have specific data on this.  I don't remember the raw number of people killed.  But I do know that the deaths per 100,000 miles travelled in the 1920s was around 24, and in the modern era it is less than 1 (calculated from government record values).  The raw deaths are obviously much, much higher this decade simply because the population has tripled.  In addition, safety features have made a huge difference in lowering the derived value (crumple zones, seat belts, air bags, none of which existed in the 20s).

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8 hours ago, Numtini said:

One of the tidbits I found out in one of my research binges was that the Mass state police were still riding horseback circuits until the late 20s because of road conditions and reliability of motor vehicles or lack thereof. They first switched to motorcycles and only later to cruisers.

And I'm pretty sure chip sealing is different than oiled gravel. Chip sealing, at least around here, is a resurface for an old pavement road done by laying down a layer of small gravel, then sealing it. It throws up the occasional piece of oily gravel for a week (if one believes the letter section of the local newspaper--that primarily happens to rich wash-ashores in white luxury SUVs which are RUINED!!! ), then rides rough for about six months, but cars eventually pulverize it into the existing road bed and it seems like a normal road. 

My memory is that oiled gravel is just some oil/sealer sprayed onto a dirt/gravel road without any other preparation at all. It's done primarily to avoid huge clouds of dust when a car goes over the road, but doesn't do much at all to act as a surface. My memory is the sprayer is almost like something a farmer would use to spray crops.

 

I'm guessing a continuum. Chip sealing is used to improve dirt / gravel roads, as well as being a cheap fix for paved roads. It is far less work than asphalt paving.

I imagine that there are places that just oil gravel roads, just as they do dirt roads for dust abatement.

 

Oiled roads frequently used waste oil, often used motor oil. There was a huge issue in the 80s when a contractor spraying the roads in Missouri was getting his oil from a chemical plant. It resulted in a town of 2000 people being abandoned.

 

Not to make light of the situation, but this has an almost Colour out of Space aspect to it.

 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Times_Beach,_Missouri

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7 hours ago, klecser said:

We do have specific data on this.  I don't remember the raw number of people killed.  But I do know that the deaths per 100,000 miles travelled in the 1920s was around 24, and in the modern era it is less than 1 (calculated from government record values).  The raw deaths are obviously much, much higher this decade simply because the population has tripled.  In addition, safety features have made a huge difference in lowering the derived value (crumple zones, seat belts, air bags, none of which existed in the 20s).

 

Automotive safety has come a long way, the old cars had all kinds of ways to kill a person. 

Cadillac went to electric starters as a safety feature after one of the founders friends was killed when the crank kicked back on him striking him in the head.

I have a book on the Model T (Henry's Model T 1908-1927, by Floyd Clymer, a wonderful resource, usually cheap on Ebay) and a very real issue was people getting run over by their own cars because in cold weather the throttle had to be advanced prior to cranking. Improperly adjusted and the car would creep forward, potentially trapping the cranker against a wall, fence etc. Who knows how many died when they weren't quick enough, or the engine didn't quit before they were crushed.

 

Safety glass, seat belts, crumple zones, traction control, ABS etc.

 

This article has a neat series of photos comparing headlights from 1908 through 2016.

https://media.ford.com/content/fordmedia/feu/en/news/2017/02/07/now-you-see-it--then-you-didnt--how-modern-lights-highlight-haza.html

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3 hours ago, Toadmaster said:

 

I'm guessing a continuum. Chip sealing is used to improve dirt / gravel roads, as well as being a cheap fix for paved roads. It is far less work than asphalt paving.

I imagine that there are places that just oil gravel roads, just as they do dirt roads for dust abatement.

 

Oiled roads frequently used waste oil, often used motor oil. There was a huge issue in the 80s when a contractor spraying the roads in Missouri was getting his oil from a chemical plant. It resulted in a town of 2000 people being abandoned.

 

Not to make light of the situation, but this has an almost Colour out of Space aspect to it.

 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Times_Beach,_Missouri

 

Probably more on chip sealing than anyone needs but...  I found this in the preview pages of a 2005 Chip seal best practices from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (a USA based organization). From the summary and history section:

Quote

Chip seals and similar surface treatments originated in the 1920s (Hinkle 1928). These early uses were predominantly as wearing courses in the construction of low volume gravel roads. In the past 75 years, chip seals have evolved into maintenance treatments that can be used on both low volume and high volume pavements.

 

Another source shows chip seal was used for roads in new Zealand as early as 1880 using coal tar, a waste product of coal gas manufacture. 

 

Way down a rabbit hole now... 😄

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Oh, I don't know.  All the bits create a picture of what travel was like in the Twenties, important for a pulp era adventure whether Mythos critters are involved or not.  Trains were the in thing, aviation was crazy Buck Rogers stuff, and horse-drawn buggies were more reliable than automobiles.  There really were places where you couldn't get there from here.  Travel really was an adventure, a challenge in and of itself even before you reached any "exotic" locations.  Good stuff to know.

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You know how you can wipe a bug splat off the car, then you make a clean spot and end up washing the whole car?

 

So I started putting this together to put into the download section, but it has grown into an (at this time) 8 page essay on travel in the 1850s-1930s with the main focus being the 1920s. It will probably be 10-12 pages (12 pt font) by the time I'm done. Covers basic information on air, sea, rail and road travel in the US, plus some brief mention of travel outside the US. 

Edited by Toadmaster
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