SPECIAL REPORT: The Beck Searchlight
(Mirrored with permission from The Heinrich Beck Web Site)

[Original English text retranslated by the Webmaster]

   During his experiments with the electric arc and its application as a high-intensity source of light, Heinrich Beck always had the construction of a lamp with higher specific luminance on his mind. He achieved this through a very strong overloading of the carbon poles with wicks of rare-earth elements. Then, the metal core of the anode evaporated violently and became highly overheated. The technical problems consisted of preventing the arc from spreading on the carbon´s coating and of guaranteeing the "Beck-effect" to set in by the constriction of the discharge. On the roof of his house in Meiningen, Nachtigallen Street No. 13, the Beck searchlight could be seen flashing over the city.

   In 1912, optimal operating conditions for such a light were essentially known, so the technical conversion could be tackled. This was done in cooperation with the company Körting & Mathiesen in Leipzig, which had been building searchlights since 1909 and had produced a rather usable construction of the common pure carbon-arc lamp. Together, Beck and this firm presented the advantages of the new searchlight to the Imperial Navy. This, however, did not lead to the acceptance of the new searchlight, since it was feared that the pure white light of the Beck arc — compared to the yellowish light of the pure carbon lamp — could less easily penetrate misty atmospheric conditions.

   In contrast, the U. S. Navy showed keen interest, and with the explicit approval of the German naval administration a test under practical conditions was planed on the American battleship Texas in July 1914. Shortly afterwards, Heinrich Beck embarked with his entire fanmily for the United States to take part in these experiments, but before the experiments could begin, the news of an impending war in Europe became so serious that the family decided to return home.

Beckscheinwerfer    The German ship on which the Becks were traveling was stopped in the English Channel. All men able to serve in the military — among them Heinrich Beck — were interned in Liverpool, England. After extensive questioning, the decision was left up to him to return to the United States, which was still neutral at that time. The return journey began in September 1914, after the inventor's confiscated documents and plans were returned to him. Obviously, the importance of the material hadn't been realized. Because of the war, further cooperation between the American Navy and a German company was no longer possible, so a license treaty had to be signed with the General Electric (GE) Company, Schenectady, NY.

   GE succeeded at collaborating with Beck to present a final searchlight design that was subsequently accepted for use on all U. S. Navy ships.

   The success of the Beck searchlight also attracted the attention of competitors, who had surreptitiously obtained his plans and experimental prototypes. During the war, the Sperry Gyroscope Company registered patents that were — to the smallest details — comprehensive copies of the first experimental Beck lamp construction. Although Sperry had to acknowledge the priority of the invention of Heinrich Beck in nullity proceedings, no demands for license could be claimed after the United States entered the war.

   Therefore, Heinrich Beck (according to his diary) found himself on the horns of a moral dilemma: he was involved in the construction of war materiel that was being used in the fight against his homeland. He soon ended his searchlight experiments for General Electric and occupied himself with the invention of military toys in a small basement workshop, which was probably quite popular during the First World War, some of which were patented. Despite his German heritage, he and his family were left almost completely undisturbed and they were allowed to move freely, except for occasional registrations with the local police.

   Meanwhile, the value of Beck's searchlight design that had originally been rejected was finally realized in Germany. The test searchlight on the laboratory tower was examined thoroughly. By the end of 1916, an initial order of 100 units was placed with Körting & Mathiesen. Later, larger orders followed. Beck's first experimental searchlight was even donated to the German Museum in Munich.

   As soon as it was possible, following the end of the war, the Beck family returned home to Germany, although Heinrich Beck did receive an attractive offer to stay in America to manage GE's searchlight division. He refused. Back in Meiningen, he found his property and laboratory completely run down. The Versailles Treaty, banning post-war searchlight production, made it impossible him to resume work in his traditional field of research. Heinrich Beck used the time to finish comprehensive documentation of all the research results he'd compiled over the years, which he published under the title "Theory of the Beck Arclight." It remains the sole extensive document describing his work personally authored by him.

   As time passed, he slowly resumed his searchlight development work and a few improvements were conceived and tested, such as, for example, the ignition of the light arc by means of a movable third electrode within 0.1 seconds. The application of the Beck arc was extended to use as a high-intensity arc lamp for the illuminating theatrical and movie productions, and later cinema projection. These uses were directly attributable to the use of high-intensity Beck arc lamps by the American navy. Individuals who had experienced using them on ships merely applied them to civilian use following the war. The biggest advantage of his lamps for these purposes was high-fidelity color reproduction in the resulting films.

   TThe post-war era brought about new challenges in the design of high-power searchlights for use in antiaircraft defense. Beck's son, Dr. Harald Beck, played an important role in searchlight design during this period. New searchlights resulting from his work were ultimately produced in great numbers by the Siemens-Schuckert factory and the AEG. The laboratory in Meiningen was integrated with AEG as a separate research department. The basic searchlights invented by Beck were constantly improved and reached higher and higher light output as new models were produced and deployed prior to and during the Second World War. Following WW II, Harald Beck continued his searchlight development work in a scientific direction (i.e., the role of the searchlight in atmospheric research), and even embraced other arc-light and plasma applications (thermal plasma die-casting of high-melting-temperature metals).

   In 1955, the Meiningen laboratory was transformed into an institute of the Academy of Sciences of the GDR. It became affiliated with the Technical University of Ilmenau in 1968 (Professor Harald Beck had moved to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1962). Today, at Ilmenau the physics of technically usable plasmas is closely examined in a research field that was begun at the Faculty of Light Technique founded by Harald Beck and at the Institute in Meiningen. The scientific team in Meiningen has continued to work, focusing mainly on industrial application projects, and they have achieved results that have had international impact.

Photo Gallery

LIGHT (60 K)

The Beck searchlight, along with other models, mounted
on the roof of Beck's laboratory for testing.

LIGHT (24 K)

A Beck 150-centimeter searchlight, 1916.

LIGHT (28 K)

A smaller Beck searchlight, 1913.

LIGHT (97 K)

Illumination of the city of Meiningen's church with a Beck searchlight, New Year's Eve 1937.

ARC (29 K)

The carbon-arc assembly for a Beck searchlight.


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