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Joseph Swan

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Memorial on display at Sunderland Museum

Sir Joseph Wilson Swan (1828-1914) was an English physicist and chemist, most famous for the invention of the incandescent light bulb.

1828 October 31st. Joseph Swan was born in at Pallion Hall in Sunderland, and he served an apprenticeship with a pharmacist there.

Soon after leaving school he was apprenticed to a firm of chemists in Sunderland.

c.1844 He entered the firm of John Mawson, whose partner and brother-in-law he became later.

1850 He began working on a light bulb using carbonized paper filaments in an evacuated glass bulb.

1860 He was able to demonstrate a working device, and obtained a UK patent covering a partial vacuum, carbon filament incandescent lamp. However, the lack of a good vacuum and an adequate electric source resulted in an inefficient bulb with a small, limited lifetime.

1861 Living at 17 Bloomfield Terrace, Gateshead: Joseph W. Swan (age 32 born Bishopwearmouth), Chemist and Druggist. With his mother Isabella Swan (age 59 born Sunderland) and his sister Emma Swan (age 23 born Bishopwearmouth). One servant.[1] .

1864 He became a partner in Mawson and Swan, a firm of manufacturing chemists in Newcastle upon Tyne, having worked there for almost twenty years.[2]

1871 Swan invented the dry (photographic) plate.

1875 Swan returned to consider the problem of the light bulb with the aid of a better vacuum and a carbonised thread as a filament. The most significant feature of Swan's improved lamp was that there was little residual oxygen in the vacuum tube to ignite the filament, thus allowing the filament to glow almost white-hot without catching fire. However, his filament had low resistance, thus needing heavy copper wires to supply it.

1878 Swan received a British patent for his device, about a year before Thomas Edison. Swan had reported success to the Newcastle Chemical Society.

1879 At a lecture in Newcastle upon Tyne in February, he demonstrated a working lamp. Starting that year he began installing light bulbs in homes and landmarks in England. His house Underhill on Kells Lane in Low Fell, Gateshead was the first in the world to have working light bulbs installed. Swan developed the bromide photographic paper.

1881 He had started his own company, Swan Electric Light Co, and started commercial production. 1,200 of the light bulbs were used to illuminate the Savoy Theatre in London to the astonishment of the audiences.

1881 Swan demonstrated his electric lighting system to a meeting of the Glasgow Philosophical Society, attended by many prominent people. His factory in Newcastle was powered by a gas engine, which was the type of system he envisaged could be used in large houses for illumination.[3].

In America Edison had been working on copies of the original Swan patent, trying to make them more efficient. Though Swan had beaten him to this goal, Edison obtained patents in America for a fairly direct copy of the Swan light, and started an advertising campaign which claimed that he was the real inventor. Swan, who was less interested in making money from the invention, agreed that Edison could sell the lights in America while he retained the rights in Britain.

1882 Joseph Swan's first company was superseded by a larger company (presumably Swan United Electric Light Co).

1882 Swan sold his U.S. patent rights to the Brush Electric Company in June of 1882.

1883 The Edison and Swan United Electric Light Co was established. Known commonly as "Ediswan" the company sold lamps made with a cellulose filament that Swan had invented in 1881. Variations of the cellulose filament became an industry standard, except with the Edison Co.

1884 of 57 Holborn Viaduct, London, E.C

1894 Swan was elected to the Royal Society.

1914 May 27th. Joseph Swan died


1914 Obituary [4]

Sir JOSEPH WILSON SWAN, M.A., D.Sc., F.R.S., was born at Sunderland on 31st October 1828. Both his father and his maternal uncle were distinguished as designers and improvers of nautical apparatus and machinery.

His school-days were few, and among his school books was one on chemistry which he eagerly studied. Soon after leaving school he became apprenticed to a firm of chemists in Sunderland.

Before the apprenticeship expired, his principal died, and he entered the firm of John Mawson, whose partner and brother-in-law he became later. It was not long before the scope of the business was greatly enlarged, through his influence, by the addition of the manufacture of chemicals and scientific apparatus, and collodion became one of their specialities.

In 1860 Mr. Swan entered into partnership with Mr. Mawson, and the firm of Mawson and Swan was established. During the next ten years he was busy experimenting and inventing, and the history of the progress of photography shows its direction. It was at this time (1864) that he worked out the carbon process, better known as the "Autotype," which was the first practical method of producing permanent photographs. This process, important in itself, had a far-reaching effect on cognate branches of photography, and was the parent of the photogravure process. His inventions involving the use of line screens laid the foundations of the present "half-tone" process.

In consequence of the death of Mr. Mawson in 1867, the responsibility of the management fell upon Mr. Swan, who found but little leisure for scientific pursuits, but on the introduction of new partners he was able to resume his scientific work. One of the incidental results of the working out of the carbon process was the observation of the hardening effect of the salts of chromic oxide on gelatine. In consequence, he proposed the application of the principle of this reaction to the leather-making industry. Chrome tanning, now an established industry, originated with this discovery.

In 1871 Dr. R. L. Maddox introduced plates of bromide of silver and gelatine as a substitute for collodion. The first plates were slow, however, and the original collodion process predominated until Mr. Swan, in 1877, prepared sensitive, dry, gelatine plates. He also found that by boiling the emulsion he obtained a degree of sensitiveness fifty times that of any emulsion previously made. In 1879 he patented bromide printing-paper.

Very early in his career he had devoted a portion of the time at his disposal to electrical experiments. The idea of an electric lamp with an incandescent filament of carbon was suggested to him at a lecture, by seeing Mr. W. E. Staite raise platino-iridium wire to incandescence by the electric current. Permanent success was only attained when he made his filament out of cotton thread, turning it into parchment by treating it with acid, and subsequently carbonizing it.

The first public lighting of a hall by means of Swan's lamps took place in Newcastle-on-Tyne on 20th October 1880.

His name is also connected with other electrical patents. He invented the cellular form of accumulator plates and devised the first miner's electric safety lamp. He took out altogether more than sixty patents, some of the later ones in conjunction with his eldest son, Mr. D. Cameron Swan.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1894, and received the honorary degrees of M.A. and D.Sc., of the University of Durham, and on the close of the Electrical Exhibition of Paris in 1881, he received the decoration of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. He was knighted for his services to science in 1904. He was an Honorary Member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, and was President of that Institution in 1898-9, and of the Society of Chemical Industry during 1900-1901. The newly established Faraday Society elected him their first President in 1904, and he was also a Member of the Royal Commission for the St. Louis Exhibition of that year.

His death took place at his residence at Warlingham, Surrey, on 27th May 1914, in his eighty-sixth year.

He was elected a Member of this Institution in 1884.


1914 Obituary [5]

SIR JOSEPH WILSON SWAN, a Past President and an Honorary Member of the Institution, died on 27th May, 1914, at the age of 85.

Most people identify Swan with the incandescent lamp, and forget what a prolific inventor he was in other directions. Naturally, the Institution is more interested in his electrical work, but his other inventions must not be forgotten. He was essentially a careful and painstaking observer, and an indefatigable worker with infinite resource in tackling the difficulties that come up in the development of new processes.

His work in photography includes the perfection of the dry plate. It is true that there were dry plates of a sort before he took the matter up, but we owe the modern rapid gelatino-bromide plate to him. The application of the same emulsion to paper, producing bromide paper, is also his invention. Though not the actual inventor of the carbon, or Autotype, process, he is entitled to the credit for producing the first practicable process. From it was evolved the present-day photogravure process, and this also gave rise to a sort of intaglio printing on power presses, for newspaper work, the ink being thicker where the hollow is deep, with the result that when dry it is darker. By this means all the shades or tones of the original are obtained, so that the impressions are practically duplicates of the original carbon print, showing all the gradations with no visible grain due to any screen. He also applied the screen to reproducing half tones in relief blocks with ordinary ink, and was thus a pioneer in what is generically called process work.

Mr. Swan, as he then was, entered into partnership with Mr. Mawson when quite a young man. Mr. Mawson was killed by the explosion of some nitro-glycerine which had been found in Newcastle. This was in the time of the "Fenians," and Mr. Mawson had to superintend the destruction of the nitro-glycerine, which was to be run into the earth on the Town Moor. There was no means of knowing what caused the explosion, as there were no survivors ; but it is supposed that some of the nitroglycerine was frozen, and that a workman tried to help it out with a spade. Mr. Swan thus had the whole responsibility of the firm on his own shoulders. Part became "Mawson, Swan & Morgan" and devoted its attention to books, stationery, and so on ; but "Mawson & Swan" became the leading house in the North for chemicals and scientific apparatus, and especially for photographic goods. In wet-plate days " Mawson's Collodion " was in universal demand, and even now, owing to its employment for photo-mechanical processes, it has a very large sale. Then came the Swan dry plates with the ferrous-oxalate developer, and these still enjoy wide popularity. The firm also made ink and yeast.

The incandescent lamp interests us more. There has been much discussion as to whether Swan or Edison invented the incandescent lamp. In fact, invention practically always consists in outstripping competitors; but in this case Edison and Swan were hardly racing, as they were on different roads.

In 1878 there was a great exhibition in Paris, and the Jablochkoff and some other arc lights were shown. The great problem of the day was what was called "The Subdivision of the Electric Light." The only dynamo in common use was the Gramme, which was series wound. Dynamo design was not understood then, and these machines though series wound had drooping characteristics, and worked one arc each. It is very difficult for modern engineers to carry their minds back to those days. The Jablochkoff was one solution of the subdivision problem, as one dynamo worked several lamps. The Brush series system of 1878 was another. Very advanced electrical engineers of those days could see the difference between the series and the parallel arrangement of lamps. Edison fully realized that parallel distribution must be used for lighting a town, and it was possible only with what was then a very high pressure, about 100 volts, and a small current for each lamp. He also realized that carbon is permanent in a vacuum ; and he took out the classical patent for a lamp with a carbon filament of high resistance in a vacuum. The Edison invention was really the true solution of the problem of the subdivision of electric light. Edison had been working at a platinum lamp for some years, and though he took out this patent, he apparently went on working at platinum and took up the carbon lamp seriously somewhat later. Swan, on the other hand, does not seem to have concerned himself at first with questions of distribution ; he tackled the problem of making a practical carbon incandescent lamp. He began with a low-pressure lamp, having a small rod of carbon, and then when he had found that the material carbon was right, he turned his attention to making it of high enough resistance to be useful for parallel running. It is very hard for us to realize the difficulties of working out such an invention.

He was essentially a practical chemist with an extraordinary knowledge of commercial chemistry, but he was not a trained electrician, nor was he a physicist. He found an enthusiastic collaborator in Mr. C. H. Stearn, who had already done work with the Sprengel pump ; and while Mr. Swan worked at the preparation of the filaments in Newcastle, Mr. Stearn, and his able assistant, Mr. F. Topham, did the exhausting. In those days there were no good measuring instruments. There were electrodynamometers, which were not direct reading, and not very accurate ; but these instruments were practically useless for lamp work, as if the current instrument was between the voltmeter terminals the pressure read was too high, and if the current instrument was outside it included the voltmeter current, and people in those days did not think of such things. Moreover, the generator was always a series-wound dynamo driven by a gas-engine with a "hit and miss" governor and a rise of pressure at every explosion.

Swan first proved that carbon was suitable, and then set to work to find out a practical way of making fine carbon threads. He worked out the parchmentized cotton process, and later a method of squirting nitro-cellulose and reducing the thread with ammonium sulphide. The squirting process is now in universal use for carbon lamps, a solution of cellulose in zinc chloride, or "viscose," being used. In the Inventions Exhibition of 1885 he showed a beautiful lace handkerchief made entirely of squirted cellulose. This was, however, subsequent to Chardonnet's first patents. The method of mounting the filament on the leading-in wires by short-circuiting the joints under some such liquid as benzol, or benzol and aniline, was another great advance. There was great difficulty in mounting a carbon satisfactorily. He was also one of the pioneers in the development of the secondary battery.

About 1880 Plante had called attention to the possibilities of the secondary battery. He used plain lead plates and "formed" them. Faure had brought out a pasted plate, but it was not satisfactory. Swan and J. S. Sellon were early workers on lead plates with large surfaces so that they could be formed, and on plates designed to hold an applied coating and to keep in good contact with it. The last of Swan's important inventions is the addition of small quantities of such bodies as glue or gelatine to a copper deposition bath. This, under proper conditions, enables the deposit to be made very rapidly, and is thus of great commercial importance. Generally speaking, an inventor—even a great inventor— makes only one invention in his life-time. Swan, on the other hand, seems to have been perfecting one invention after another during the greater part of a long life ; and it is when all his work is considered that one gets an idea of the real greatness of the man. He was a great judge of character, and in most cases chose his assistants and co-workers well; his great ability, and his kindly character and great natural goodness, attached his subordinates to him with great affection and loyalty. He was elected a Member of the Institution in 1881, was President in 1898-1899, and was made an Honorary Member in 1900. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, the first President of the Faraday Society—apparently being chosen as the most eminent and best example of the combination of the knowledge of science and of its applications—President of the Society of Chemical Industry, and the recipient of the Albert Medal of the Royal Society of Arts. He was knighted in 1904. After a long and extraordinarily useful life he died full of honours, all well deserved.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1861 Census
  2. Newcastle Journal - Friday 29 January 1864
  3. The Newcastle Courant Friday, March 18, 1881
  4. 1914 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries
  5. 1914 Institution of Electrical Engineers: Obituaries
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