The History of Xenon Flashtubes

Blog Post

What we consider today as common things were once a major technological advancement. There were times that a simple adding or modification of a certain component led to significant changes and innovations, which served as a foundation for more technological developments afterwards. One example of this is the flashtube technology. And there’s no doubt that through improvements, it has gone to a whole new level than previous flashtubes.

One of the major lighting devices commonly used today for lighting purposes, especially when it comes to theatrical lighting and warning/emergency lighting applications, is the xenon flashtube. This week we’re going to discuss briefly about its history and its development from the time it was invented up to this day. xenon


The flashtube was invented and developed by Harold Edgerton in the 1930s. In those days, he was fond of taking photographs and thought of using flashtubes as means to take sharp photographs of moving objects.

During his time, flashtubes were mainly used in strobe lights for scientific studies. But eventually, it replaced the chemical and powder flashbulbs, and began to be used in mainstream photography.

In 1927, Harold Edgerton built his first flash unit while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Because of his strong desire to photograph a moving motor in vivid detail and without blur, he decided to improve the process of spark photography. In order to generate better light output, he replaced an open-air, electrical-arc discharge and used a mercury-arc rectifier instead, in which he was then able to achieve a 10 microseconds flash duration and was able to photograph the moving motor as he desired.

However, the efficiency of the flashtube with mercury-arc rectifier was limited. It was temperature dependent and only performed efficiently when in a high temperature. Afterwards, his colleague’s show of interest in the new flashtube device he developed soon persuaded him to improve upon the design. He eventually studied high-speed photographic and stroboscopic techniques along with its applications and decided to try a noble gas instead of mercury. And in 1930, he employed the General Electric Company to construct lamps that uses argon instead. These argon tubes were not temperature dependent, much more efficient, smaller, and possible to be mounted near the reflector which enabled the flashtube to concentrate its light output. Eventually, camera designers began to take notice of this technology advancement and began to accept it. And in 1940 Harold Edgerton received his first major order from Kodak Company for those strobes.

Afterwards, Harold Edgerton soon discovered that xenon was more suitable to use than argon and the most efficient of all the noble gases. He also discovered that flashtubes that use xenon gas have the capability to produce a spectrum very close to that of daylight. This discovery eventually led flashtubes to become a standard and a number one option in the lighting industry, and replaced most of the previous incandescent lamps at the market.

In 1990s, manufacturers had made some improvements on xenon flashtubes in order to produce brighter light. They are known today as HID (high-intensity discharge) headlamps or xenon headlights that produce an intense flash of white light for about 3000 lumens according to official stats. Those kinds of flashtubes were being used in vehicle applications as headlights.

Today they are being used in several scientific and industrial applications, such as in clubs where they are used to give an illusion of slow motion, aircraft anti-collision lighting, television and radio towers, theatrical lighting, alarm systems, high-visibility running lights and in emergency vehicle lighting.

They can be seen around us almost everywhere today. For us they may seem ordinary and common, but yesterday, they were thought of as wonderful things to be gazed upon.