24 February 2012

Bike Electronics, Then And Now

One of my favorite cycling blogs, along with Lovely Bicycle! and Girls and Bikes is Urban Adventure League.  

Today's UAL post is typical in that reflects the creativity and humor of the blog's author, Shawn.  The post contrasts bicycle touring electronics of the 1970's with their counterparts today.

Actually, "counterparts" isn't quite an accurate term.  For one thing, cyclists today use many more electronic devices, on as well as off their bikes, than we did "back in the day."  I never had a transistor radio attached to my bike, but I carried one on rides that lasted more than a day.  They were the best one could do for weather reports and such.  

As for lights, the post accurately depicts their state in those days: bigger and boxier.  What it doesn't, and couldn't, show is that they were also far less effective than today's lights.  Halogen bulbs were available only in the larger sizes used in headlights for motor vehicles; they were not yet re-sized and otherwise modified for bicycle lights.  And, if I'm not mistaken, LED's hadn't been invented. 

One of the better lights I used was made by British Ever Ready Electric Company (BEREC).  

It took, if I recall correctly, two D batteries, which meant that it weighed a seeming ton.  But it did provide a brighter and broader beam than most other lights available at that time.  Plus, it came with hardware that allowed you to mount it in a variety of positions (including the built-in fork mounts found on most bikes sold in Great Britain at that time) and to remove it when you parked.  The latter, of course, was a useful feature for commuters who had to leave their bikes in urban combat zones as well as for cycle-campers.

BEREC also made what was, for that time, a nice, if heavy and clunky, tail light:

At the time this light was made, the only available flashing tail light was the Belt Beacon.  It was a great light, even by today's standards, but it was difficult to mount  and rather flimsy. (I broke two before giving up on them.)  On the other hand, the BEREC tail light, like the headlight, was solidly constructed and gave a good beam.

The other alternatives, in those days before halogen and LEDs, were Wonder battery lights as well as various generator-powered lamps.  Wonder lights were bright, given the standards of the time, though not as bright as the BEREC lights.  They also were much lighter and more streamlined.  However, they took a battery that only Wonder made.  If you were in France, that wouldn't be a problem, as it and the lights were made there and most shops in the country stocked them.  However, their availability was more sporadic in the States, which meant the batteries were considerably more expensive than the D-size batteries that powered the BEREC lights.

The first pieces of bicycle electronics I recall seeing that didn't have to do with lighting were computers that measured distance, speed and, in some cases, cadence.  They also measured the time elapsed on your ride.  The first such computer, to my knowledge was marketed by CatEye in 1981.  

Looking at it makes me think of the portable phones the Miami Vice cars. They are to today's "smart phones" as incandescent bulbs are to LEDs.  But they, like this original Cateye and the Commodore personal computers, were the the highest technology of their time.

What I'd really like to see are LED head lamps with the style of 1890's carbide bike lights.

I think there'd be room in it someplace for a cycle-computer with all of the modern functions!


  1. Thanks for the shout-out!
    Truth be told, I actually like the look of those old Ever Ready lights, esp. the front one. Now if someone decided to make a modernized version with an LED and all that, I'd get one!

  2. Adventure!--I agree. I always liked the look of the headlight. Other British, as well as French and Japanese, companies made similarly-styled headlights in chromed steel before BEREC came out with the model shown in this post. I wouldn't mind seeing one with an LED, either, whether in metal or the gray plastic BEREC used.

  3. Wow, good info. I am on the search for classic lights for my Raleigh DL-1

  4. Also make sure you lock your tire to the frame of the bike, and the bike frame to the bike rack.

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  5. I would love an LED reproduction carbide light! I have seen that as a request on a couple of bike blogs. I'm a little surprised they aren't available yet. How much fun would it be to really steam puck out a bike and include those lights?

  6. Those Wonder lamps take a 1289 size four half volt battery but the new code for these is 3R12 and you can still get these nowadays. I collect old battery lamps and have those Ever Ready ones you have but Ever Ready made an early lamp that took a twin cell 3V battery known a s a No 800 size. i have a few of these lamps and there batteries to. These early lamps were prone to problems such as leaky batteries as they had a hole in the bottom that you could poke your finger through to remove the battery but this was there down fall as when the battery got wet it leaked. Wonder or as there known in France as Pile Wonder also made batteries to. I have seen early lamps converted to LED but nowadays bike lamps are better as they are brighter and use less power so the batteries last longer and the bulb does to.

  7. Anon--Thanks for the info about lamps and batteries. It sounds like you have quite a collection.

    I actually like the style of a lot of older lamps--and, in the case of Ever Ready and Wonder, think it's a shame they had to come along before the age of LEDs. Both of those lamps had practical designs--and the Wonder was as versatile as the Ever Ready was sturdy.

  8. I still have a working Wonder light. I got a 4 x AA battery holder from ratshack, cut off one end that reduced it to 3 cells (3 x 1.5 = 4.5 volts) and wired that to the contacts inside. The cut down holder just fits inside.

    You can also buy bayonet or screw base LED replacement 'bulbs' for older lights. The light isn't always great because of the way direction the light is emited but the battery life is great. The led 'bulbs' are also more immune to overvoltage burnouts from bicycle generators.

  9. Anon--Thanks for the information about bulb compatiblity and the way you adapted the Wonder light.

    A lot of vintage lights would be decent with LEDs, and the Wonder could be handy (after all, it's tough and relatively light in weight) if it could be used with something besides Wonder batteries.

  10. Researching current LED lights, and came across your page. I have a set of those old BEREC lights. Heavy, well made, but unfortunately, impractical compared to the current LED lights not available. Still, I wont throw them out. And I would like to get an old carbide lamp that my dad used in the UK where and when a bike was more necessity than a pastime.

  11. 5b--I'd love to have one of those old carbide lamps. I'm told they gave off a lot of light. If nothing else, they have style.

    I don't blame you for keeping your BEREC lights. If they could be retrofitted with LED bulbs, they'd be great because nothing is as well-made today.

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