Liberty Truck Lighting Systems PART 2: Did We Say Electric? We Totally Meant Gas and Oil…

So we talked a little while ago about electric lighting on the truck- sure, it wasn’t like today’s bulbs but electric lighting was the latest and greatest form of automobile lighting during WW1. So naturally an improved second-series truck would have the best and BRIGHTEST (get it?) features…right?

WRONG.

Instead, the second-series Liberty Truck introduced very late in the war would have not electric, but gas and oil lighting systems in their place.

The oil lamps were simple enough- a standard Kerosene oil lamp similar to any other of the time period using a threaded wick. They would need to be lit by hand in the event of use, but could be very easily extinguished (on their own more often than not) and cleaned and disassembled in the field. It is a safe assumption that generally, your run-of-the-mill rural-born US doughboy would have been more familiar with the care and maintenance of an oil lamp than an electric light which was an added benefit to this system. Kerosene would have also been readily available anywhere the truck might be whether it be Europe or the US.

Searchlight and Acetylene Generator Tank 4
Illustration of the second-series truck oil lamps and brackets for them from the Class B Standardized Military Truck Manual, 1919.

But the oil lamps weren’t the only illumination- the main source of light on the second series of trucks was an acetylene gas-powered search light, mounted on the center of the dash and typically controlled by the co-driver. This was not the pressurized acetylene we are familiar with today: the searchlight was powered by lump or powder calcium-carbide which would interact with water by way of a filter reservoir and slow drip system (the gas ‘generator’). This interaction would in turn create acetylene gas which would travel up a brass or rubber hose through the dash to the search light which could be ignited by the operator in the cab. This gas system is a larger version of what was commonly encountered on the lamps of miner’s hats and helmets of the period and was also quite common on commercial automobiles such as early model-T’s.

Searchlight and Acetylene Generator Tank
Another illustration from the 1919 Motor Transport Corps truck manual showing the ‘Solar’ acetylene gas generator and search light system found on second series trucks.

A ‘Solar’ brand gas generator was initially issued with trucks. With a brass housing, the Solar generator was typically painted drab to match the vehicle and obscure the shiny brass. Photos have been found of some trucks in use with the Army which have had the generator replaced with other models of gas generator or pressurized tank, the reason for which is unknown.

'Solar' Brand Acetylene Gas Generator
A Solar Model 1012-B Carbide Gas generator. This model, along with the 1011-B were found on the second-series liberty truck and typically painted drab to match the truck. The C.M. Hall Lamp Co. also produced electric lighting for the first-series truck under government contract.

The question after all this that begs an answer is really, well, why not just stick with the electric system? In my extensive research and combing documents I have found little written during or after the war as to why or when they made the switch officially. One theory could be that the removal of the wiring system contributed to an overall simpler truck; easier to assemble, less parts to fix, less parts to supply, and a simplified standardization process which was at the core of the trucks design.

tool crib
A second-series truck languishing in what appears to be a truck dump somewhere more than likely post-war. Though blurry, the dash-mounted searchlight and Solar gas generator mounted on the firewall are clearly visible.

Another theory could have been field maintenance. Oil lamps and carbide gas generators are far easier to clean, replace and fix in a field environment than electrical components and would have required far less invasive maintenance than an elaborate wiring system. Familiarization with oil and carbide lamps amongst generally un-educated and often illiterate soldiers is another factor, where electrical wiring would have required someone with more advanced technical training or knowledge to fix. Keep in mind that for many in America, electric lighting was still quite new and some may have had their first experience with it in the Army. While the official documented reasons are still shrouded in mystery, these theories are simply some of my own from observations interaction with both lighting systems and considering common social and educational limitations of the time period.

A Light in the Darkness: Liberty Truck Lighting systems PART 1- Electric

Illumination: a basic desire of anyone working at night or with terrible vision, or both! The Liberty was driven by people who found themselves in both those situations frequently- hopefully more of one than the other. Of course, lights for the trucks were a necessity and the Quartermaster Department saw to it that that the standardized Class-B truck had the best that could be offered at the time…at first.

To begin with we should state that there were two different lighting systems utilized by the Liberty Truck- electric for the First-series truck which was followed by what some would consider a step backwards in the form of Carbide gas and oil lamp lighting on the Second-series. The electric lighting system was a simple one attached to an acid battery which would require periodic recharging and distilled water refills. The electrical system is a hallmark of the first series of trucks. The wiring harness associated with the lighting system added a layer of complexity to the complete truck which may have influenced its removal in later series, but its usefulness was evident.

Battery assembly components manufactured by Vesta Accumulator Co., Chicago. October 31, 1918
The Battery used in the 1st-Series Class-B Standardized Truck with insulated wooden housing. Some battery components were manufactured and assembled at the Vesta Accumulator Company in Chicago, IL. This was one of 7 reported producers of batteries for the Class-B.

The system consisted of 2 adjustable-focus head lamps, 2 tail lamps, 2 small side lamps mounted near the front bumper support, and a single dash-mounted ‘trouble light’ which could be plugged-in to a socket to turn it on in case of emergency. The headlights were mounted to brackets on the exterior of the upper firewall above the engine housing. Each lamp could be adjusted to allow a more focused beam of light. We have little information on the output of the lights as far as brightness in actual practice, but given the technology of the day and standard 6V bulb brightness it was probably not the greatest…but at least it was better than candles. In fact, the 1918 ‘Standardized Military Truck Class-B Instruction Book’ lists the head lamps as containing ’21-candlepower bulbs’ when focused correctly at about 20 feet away. For comparison, your average 60W vehicle headlight nowadays is around 7,000 candlepower (abbreviated ‘cp’) measured at a distance of around 30 feet.

Electric Headlamps- page 41
Illustration of the first-series truck electric head lamp from page 41 of the ‘Motor Transport Corps Instruction Book, Class B Standardized Military Truck’ from 1919. This very rare instruction manual was released after WW1 and details many of the mechanical and cosmetic differences between first and second-series trucks. (photo courtesy of William ‘Adrian’ Winget digital collection)

For obvious reasons of detection and ‘tactical environments’ the tail, side and dash lights were all much less powerful than the head lamps containing 6V, 2cp bulbs. This would have provided enough illumination to aid close vision but remain hard to detect at a distance. The rear tail lights were circular and smaller in diameter to the headlights and mounted to brackets on the left and right of the rear bumper mounts. This was long before the time of blackout lights, so they just had to hope they were dim enough to avoid distant enemy detection…or just remove them outright.

Electirc system in use
Quartermaster Corps soldiers assemble a first-series truck and lower the firewall onto the frame at the Diamond-T Motor Car Co.,Chicago, IL. April 30, 1918. Note the head lamps and wiring harness prior to being installed. (photo courtesy of the National Archives)

The light assemblies were produced by four different companies, all of which were located in the Midwest-much like the rest of the truck’s components. These included the C.M.Hall Lamp Co. of Kenosha WI, the Indiana Lamp Co., Connersville IN, Edmunds and Jones Corp., Detroit MI, and the Guide Motor Lamp Manufacturing Co., Cleveland OH.  Many of these companies would continue to produce for military vehicles and become household names during and after WW2.

Test Vehicle, December 10th, 1917. 4
A good shot of the electric head lamps on a Class-B test truck in December, 1917. Note the prototype single-bolt bumper style which was replaced with a 4-bolt-per-side bumper on production first-series trucks.