By Karl Rosengarth
Sherman, set the Way-Back-in-the-Day Machine to the year 1981, and the place: Phoenix, Arizona. The objective of our mission: the Belt Beacon.
During a recent basement-cleaning session, I stumbled upon my Belt Beacon, the first flashing bike safety light that I ever purchased. I was living in Phoenix at the time, and to the best of my knowledge the year was 1981. I can’t remember if other "blinky" lights were widely available at that time, but a friend recommended the Belt Beacon, so I ended up purchasing one.
As you can see from the photo at the top of the page, the Belt Beacon is a behemoth by today’s standards, eerily reminiscent of a motorcycle tail light from the same era.
Despite it’s awkward form factor, the Belt Beacon gave me years of reliable service before it stopped working. I tried to trouble-shoot the circuit, but my limited electrical engineering skill were not up to the task. I can’t bring myself to toss it out. Perhaps, one day, I might solve the mystery and resuscitate this piece of history.
The photo above shows the unit with the translucent orange plastic cap popped off, and reveals the high-intensity lamp that gave Belt Beacon it’s retina-searing brightness. Even by current standards, this baby was bright! And the dome-shaped cover provided great side-visibility to boot.
The black mark and scar at the six o’clock positon on the orange cover was caused by my rear tire rubbing on it. I recall that I had mounted the Belt Beacon on my rear rack’s reflector bracket. Somehow the bracket got bent, causing the cover to drag on my rear wheel. I can’t believe it wore such a deep groove before I noticed. Oops!
The photo above shows the rear of the unit. A small, black on/off switch is located at the six o’clock position. The screw and washers at 12 o’clock were used to attach the Belt Beacon to the reflector mount.
You can also see two diagonally-opposed mounting holes (at 4 and 10 o’clock) that, along with a pair of provided screws, were to be used for mounting the Belt Beacon to a fabric strap, or a backpack, or a wide fender. I never used that attachment method.
The slot at three o’clock in the photo was used to attach a provided metal belt-clip, which was designed to be worn: "on a belt, head sweat band, or hung over any convenient object," according to the instructions (yes, I kept them). The belt clip worked well, as I recall. It went MIA at some point.
The instruction sheet includes the following passage: "Motorists, especially inattentive, tired or intoxicated, are a real danger to hikers and bikers who travel at night. Your real safety, in the absence of good paths, depends on being highly visible and getting motorist’s attention. Your solid state Belt Beacon electronically drives a high intensity lamp, and does so at low cost with high portability and exceptionally long battery life."
The warning about "inattentive, tired or intoxicated" drivers still rings true today. Sadly, the streets haven’t gotten any safer in the past 30 years.
Another paragraph from the instructions has this to say: "Backpackers, hunters, airplane pilots and night fishermen will find the portability and long battery life make the Belt Beacon a good addition to their usual kits. If lost or an emergency arises, the Belt Beacon will flash strongly approx. 1-2 weeks or more at night."
True story: the Belt Beacon saved by bacon on one particular "power-boat camping" trip. I used it to illuminate my remote camp-spot at night while I motored back to the docks to pick up a late arriving friend. Using the Belt Beacon as a signaling device on the shoreline was most likely highly illegal, but If it weren’t for the bright strobe indicating my remote camp spot, I’d probably have run out of gas looking for my camp in the dark.
I was able to track down some Belt Beacon history via Cyclelicious who indicated that the Ampec company from Phoenix started selling the Belt Beacon in 1974, and stopped making them in the late ’90s. That’s right about the time that LED safety lights burst onto the scene. The folks from Cateye tell me that they introduced their first LED blinky in the USA in 1992.
Let’s hear from you. What’s your earliest recollection of blinky lights? Which model did you first purchase? Do you remember the Belt Beacon? Please comment below.