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Joseph Swan

Sir Joseph Wilson Swan (31 October 1828 27 May 1914) was a British physicist and chemist, most famous for the invention of the incandescent light bulb before its independent invention by the American Thomas Edison.

Swan's first demonstration of the light bulb was at a lecture in Newcastle upon Tyne on 18 December 1878, but he did not receive a patent until 27 November 1880 (patent No. 4933) after improvement to the original lamp. His house (in Gateshead, England) was the first in the world to be lit by a lightbulb, and the world's first electric-light illumination in a public building was for a lecture by Swan in 1880. In 1881, the Savoy Theatre in the City of Westminster, London was lit by Swan incandescent lightbulbs, the first theatre and the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity.[1]

In 1904, Swan was knighted by King Edward VII, awarded the Royal Society's Hughes Medal, and was made an honorary member of the Pharmaceutical Society. He had already received the highest decoration in France, the L gion d'honneur, when he visited an international exhibition in Paris in 1881. The exhibition included exhibits of his inventions, and the city was lit with electric light, thanks to Swan's invention.[2]


Early life

Joseph Wilson Swan was born in 1828 at Pallion Hall in Bishopwearmouth (now part of Sunderland, Tyne and Wear). His parents were John Swan and Isabella Cameron.[3] He served an apprenticeship with a pharmacist there. He later became a partner in Mawson's, a firm of manufacturing chemists in Newcastle upon Tyne. This company existed as Mawson, Swan and Morgan until 1973, formerly located on Grey Street in Newcastle upon Tyne near Grey's Monument. The premises are now owned by the Swedish fashion retailer H&M and can be identified by a line of Victorian-style electric street lamps in front of the store on Grey Street. Swan lived at Underhill, a large house on Kells Lane North, Low Fell, Gateshead, where he conducted most of his experiments in the large conservatory.[4] The house was later converted into a private fee paying, grant aided co-educational grammar school that went by the name of Beaconsfield School.[5] Here, students could still find examples of Swan's original electrical fittings.[5]

Electric light

Carbon filament lamp (E27 socket, 220 volts, approx. 30 watts, left side: running with 100 volts)
Carbon filament lamp (E27 socket, 220 volts, approx. 30 watts, left side: running with 100 volts)
In 1850 Swan began working on a light bulb using carbonized paper filaments in an evacuated glass bulb. By 1860 he was able to demonstrate a working device, and obtained a British 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 short lifetime.

Fifteen years later, in 1875, Swan returned to consider the problem of the light bulb with the aid of a better vacuum and a carbonized 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.[6]

Swan first publicly demonstrated his incandescent carbon lamp at a lecture for the Newcastle upon Tyne Chemical Society held on December 18, 1878. However after burning with a bright light for some minutes in his laboratory, the lamp broke down due to excessive current. On January 17, 1879 this lecture was successfully repeated with the lamp shown in actual operation, Swan had solved the problem of incandescent electric lighting by means of a vacuum lamp. On February 3, 1879 he publicly demonstrated a working lamp to an audience of over seven hundred people in the lecture theatre of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle, Sir William Armstrong presiding. Swan turned his attention to producing a better carbon filament and the means of attaching its ends. He devised a method of treating cotton to produce "parchmentised thread" and obtained British Patent 4933 on November 27, 1880.[7] From this 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. The Lit & Phil Library in Westgate Road, Newcastle, was the first public room to be lit by electric light during a lecture by Swan on October 20, 1880.[8][9] In 1881 he had started his own company, The Swan Electric Lamp Company, and started commercial production.[10]

The Savoy, a state-of-the-art theatre in the City of Westminster, London, was the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity.[11] Joseph Swan supplied about 1,200 Swan incandescent lamps, and the lights were powered by a generator on open land near the theatre.[1][12] The builder of the Savoy, Richard D'Oyly Carte, explained why he had introduced Swan's electric light: "The greatest drawbacks to the enjoyment of the theatrical performances are, undoubtedly, the foul air and heat which pervade all theatres. As everyone knows, each gas-burner consumes as much oxygen as many people, and causes great heat beside. The incandescent lamps consume no oxygen, and cause no perceptible heat."[13] The first generator proved too small to power the whole building, and though the entire front-of-house was electrically lit, the stage was lit by gas until December 28, 1881. At that performance, Carte stepped on stage and broke a glowing lightbulb before the audience to demonstrate the safety of Swan's new technology. On December 29, 1881, The Times described the electric lighting as superior, visually, to gaslight.[14]

The first private residence, other than the inventor's, to be lighted by the new incandescent lamp was the house of his friend, Sir William Armstrong, at Cragside, near Rothbury, Northumberland. Swan personnally supervised the installation there in December, 1880. Swan had formed 'The Swan Electric Light Company Ltd' with a factory at Benwell, Newcastle, and by the beginning of 1881 the first commercial manufacture of the incandescent electric lamp was established. The first ship to use Swan's new invention was The City of Richmond owned by the 'Inman Line'. She was fitted out with incandescent lamps in June 1881. The Royal Navy also introduced them to their ships soon after with HMS Inflexible having the new lamps installed in the same year.[15]

Edison collaboration

The common coupling of the name of Swan with that of Edison in connection with the incandescent electric lamp has often led to the notion that Swan collaborated with Edison in this invention. That was not so. Their work was completely independent, and although they knew that each of them was at work on the problem of devising a practical lamp, neither of them had either met or held any communication with the other. The conjunction of their names come about in 1883 when the two competing companies merged to exploit both Swan's and Edison's inventions.[15]

In America, Edison had been working on copies of the original light bulb patented by Swan, 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.

While searching for a better filament for his light bulb, Swan inadvertently made another advance. In 1881, Swan developed and patented a process for squeezing nitro-cellulose through holes to form conducting fibres. His newly established Swan Electric Lamp Company (which by merger was to become the Edison and Swan United Company) used the cellulose filaments, that Swan had invented, in their bulbs. The textile industry has also used this process.[3][16]


In 1883 the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company 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 Company. Edison continued using bamboo filaments until the 1892 merger that created Edison General Electric, and that company then shifted to cellulose.

In 1886 Ediswan moved production to a former jute mill at Ponders End, North London.[17] In 1916 Ediswan set up Britain's first radio thermionic valve factory at Ponders End. This area, with nearby Brimsdown subsequently developed as a centre for the manufacture of thermionic valves, cathode ray tubes, etc. and nearby parts of Enfield became an important centre of the electronics industry for much of the 20th century. Ediswan became part of British Thomson-Houston and Associated Electrical Industries (AEI) in the late 1920s.[18]


When working with wet photographic plates, Swan noticed that heat increased the sensitivity of the silver bromide emulsion. By 1871 he had devised a method of using dry plates and substituting nitro-cellulose plastic for glass plates, thus initiating the age of convenience in photography. Eight years later he patented bromide paper, developments of which are still used for black-and-white photographic prints.

Later life

In 1894 Swan was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.[19] In 1904 he was knighted, awarded the Royal Society's Hughes Medal, and made an honorary member of the Pharmaceutical Society. Swan died in 1914 at Warlingham in Surrey.

In 1945 the London Power Company commemorated Swan by naming a new 1,554 GRT coastal collier SS Sir Joseph Swan.[20][15]


  1. a b "The Savoy Theatre", The Times, 3 October 1881
  2. a b Davidson, Michael W. and The Florida State University. "Molecular expressionsTM. Science, optics and you. Pioneers in optics. Joseph Swan (1828-1914)." Last modification February 26, 2004. Retrieved November 16, 2009.
  3. Newton, Douglas (1978) New Scientist 26 Oct 1978 Retrieved December 30, 2010
  4. a b Electrical times, Volume 145 p.220. Retrieved December 30, 2010
  5. Lamp Inventors 1880-1940: Carbon Filament Incandescent
  6. Swan K R Sir Joseph Swan and the Invention of the Incandescent Electric Lamp. 1946 Longmans, Green and Co. Pp 21 25
  7. History in pictures - The Lit & Phil BBC. Retrieved August 8, 2011
  8. R.C. Chirnside. Sir Joseph Wilson Swan FRS The Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne 1979
  9. Burgess, Michael. "Richard D'Oyly Carte", The Savoyard, January 1975, pp. 7 11
  10. Gooday, Graeme. ''Domesticating electricity: technology, uncertainty and gender, 1880-1914''. Pickering & Chatto, 2008, p. 107, accessed November 30, 2010
  11. "Richard D'Oyly Carte", at the Lyric Opera San Diego website, June 2009
  12. Description of lightbulb experiment in The Times, December 29, 1881
  13. a b c
  14. Pam, D. (1977),The New Enfield: Stories of Enfield Edmonton and Southgate, a Jubilee History, London Borough of Enfield Libraries, Arts & Entertainment Dept
  15. Lewis J.(2001), London's Lea Valley: More Secrets Revealed, Phillimore, ISBN 1-86077-190-4

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