Museum Artifact: Big Beam No. 164 Sealed Beam Beacon Lamp, 1950s
Made By: U-C Lite MFG Co., 1050 W. Hubbard St., Chicago, IL [West Town]
First of all, don’t call it a flashlight. This life-saving, mid-century necessity is a “hand lamp” (or "hand lantern"), and very similar models are still being manufactured today—by the original company—at a plant in suburban Crystal Lake, Illinois. The business is now known as Big Beam Emergency Systems, Inc., but 60 years ago, “Big Beam” was just a brand name—the flagship product of Chicago’s U-C Lite MFG Company.
There isn’t a great deal of information available on the founder of U-C Lite, Cyrus G. Talbot, but current Big Beam general manager Steve Loria was thoughtful enough to pass along some photos and factoids to aid in our efforts (and kudos to Steve and his company for celebrating their roots).
For starters, we know that Cyrus Talbot launched his business in 1938, in the humblest of fashions. The South Sider was a highly skilled electrician, but he wasn’t one of these youthful, wunderkind entrepreneurs that we sometimes encounter in Chicago industrial circles. Instead, Talbot was already 53 years old by the time he sold his first flashlight—err, hand lantern.
According to his grandson Joseph F. Talbot, Jr., Cyrus had been gainfully employed for more than 30 years with the Chicago Fire Department, managing the CFD’s electrical equipment. This work logically included selecting, developing, and probably tweaking the lighting methods firefighters depended on to navigate their way through smoke and darkness.
Battery powered flashlights had existed since around the turn of the century, but it was an evolving science—and one Cyrus Talbot began to seriously ponder as a second career path in the midst of the Depression.
Talbot built his original Big Beam prototype lantern in his basement, using a wood case and a motorcycle headlight. His goal was not only to create a stronger, “bigger beam” of light for firemen to use, but to develop a more efficient means of keeping the batteries charged.
In January of 1939, with his fledgling company off the ground, Talbot and his co-assignee Adrian H. Townsend applied for a patent on a “charging system for electric lamps.”
“Portable electric lamps which are battery-operated,” they wrote, “have become popular in late years where illumination is required in places where electric service is absent or has been interrupted, or where a handy lamp is desired for use in different places. It has been found that longer and more economical service is obtainable from such a lamp when it is operated by a storage battery, but the problem of re-charging the battery from time to time has been a difficult and unsatisfactory one.”
Their innovation was using the Big Beam’s oversized lamp head as a “carrier or support for the charging receptacle.” This would provide a charging unit that was “distant from the battery, whereby to render the receptacle immune to acid fumes issuing from the battery during the charging operation.”
Okay, so patent language isn’t as exciting as firefighting. But it’s all connected, man.
Talbot and Townsend's design was officially patented in 1941, and during the war years, it was actually Adrian Townsend (a professional salesman by trade) who took on the main leadership role of the upstart business, serving as the president of the new U-C Lite MFG Co. until Talbot finally left his cozy government job behind to run the company. A man named Alfred H. Davis was also a partner.
U-C's first home office was located at 500 Dearborn Street, followed quickly by a move to 11 E. Hubbard Street (current home of Andy's Jazz Club). A major, dedicated factory was also established in the mid 1940s at 1050 W. Hubbard Street in West Town. That building is still standing today, and is now residential.
[The former Big Beam factory at 1050 W. Hubbard St., 1940s vs today]
"I lived right across the street from the factory, at 442 N. Aberdeen St.," recalls Ray Masterson, a visitor to the Made In Chicago Museum. "During the war my mom worked at Big Beam in the basement as a welder. Every day when I got home from school, I had to go across the street, lie down on the sidewalk and look into the basement window so mom knew I was home. War days but happy days for a school kid."
According to current Big Beam GM Steve Loria, “U-C Lite made varied sizes, types, and finishes of lanterns and flashers" right from the beginning. "In the late 1940s, they started making emergency lights—when the power failed, the self-contained battery lit up the heads.”
By the mid 1950s, Cyrus Talbot had earned patents on his battery retainer and signal hand lamp design, which included the ability to manually adjust the positioning of both the main headlight and emergency light.
[Between 1953 and 1958, Cyrus Talbot added a red emergency light to the back of the Big Beam]
Another museum guest, Rick Spence, claims that his father also played a role in developing the Big Beam battery retainer, as well as several other company innovations. "He also owned a business that painted and silk screened the company information [on Big Beam products]," Spence says.
"As a young boy, I sat at the kitchen table and watched my father etch the silk screen templates. I had made several trips to the Hubbard Street factory and it was far from Art Deco. It was dark, dingy, and not what a little boy would consider a cool place. As with most, if not all industry in the '40s and '50s, it was just too dark.
"One of my indelible memories was when a man that worked for my father, John Newicki (not sure of the spelling) was injured by a machine that had an anomaly. One of the punch presses had a rod that, if all things were aligned, would kick out. That rod happened to come out of the machine and hit John in the head, causing his brain to swell. Medicine not being what it is today, the swelling led to his death; devastating all who knew John."
Factory tragedies aside, few could argue that the Big Beam didn't save far more lives than it ever put in jeopardy.
While hand lamps like our No. 164 Beacon Lamp were certainly marketed to a wide clientele in the civilian population (“Here is the powerful, dependable, portable light everyone’s talking about," one ad read, “Indispensable for Farmers, Home Owners and Motorists, ideal for Yachting, Hunting, Fishing, Camping and all outdoor uses.”), the product always remained—first and foremost—a trusted staple of the firehouse, helping first responders find and save victims in the darkest and smokiest of circumstances.
“We have some glossy old photos of fire trucks with Big Beam lanterns lined up, ready for use,” Loria says. “Some hand lanterns were sold with an optional hold-down bracket so that the lantern could be mounted on the fender or storage cabinet of the fire truck for easy access.”
After decades working alongside Chicago firefighters, Cyrus G. Talbot wound up making a lasting contribution to that noble profession. As mentioned earlier, Big Beam still produces many of these hand lanterns to this day, and they’re still noted for their power and dependability.
Talbot died in Mount Prospect, Illinois, in 1962, aged 77. Three years later, U-C Lite president Alfred Davis (who'd also been there from the beginning) announced the sale of the company to Penn-Union, though U-C Lite would carry on as its own entity. By then the manufacturing operations had already moved to Crystal Lake. Fifty years later, Big Beam shines on, specializing in emergency lights and signs as well as those much beloved hand lanterns.
Click the logo to visit the current Big Beam website.