Sir Joseph Wilson Swan KBE (31 October 1828 – 27 May 1914) was a British physicist and chemist, most famous for the invention of the incandescent light bulb for which he received the first patent in 1878. His house was the first in the world to be lit by a lightbulb.
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 Légion 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.
The new secondary school recently named after him, Joseph Swan School, is in Gateshead, on Saltwell Road South, Low Fell quite close to where Joseph Swan lived. Swan actually lived at Underhill, a large house on Kells Lane North, Low Fell, where he conducted most of his experiments in the large conservatory. The house was later converted into a private fee paying, grant aided co-educational grammar school that went by the name of Beaconsfield School. Here, students could still find examples of Swans original electrical fittings.
Sir Joseph Swan was born in 1828 at Pallion Hall in Bishopwearmouth (now part of Sunderland, Tyne and Wear). His parents were John and Isabella Swan. 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.
In 1850 he 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.
Swan received a British patent for his device in 1878, about a year before Thomas Edison. Swan had reported success to the Newcastle Chemical Society and at a lecture at Sunderland Technical College in February 1879 he demonstrated a working lamp. Swan 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. In 1881 he had started his own company, The Swan Electric Light Company, and started commercial production.
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 Company, which by merger was to become the Edison and Swan United Company, used the cellulose filaments, that Swan had invented, in their bulbs.
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 General Electric, and that company then shifted to cellulose.
In 1886 Ediswan moved production to a former jute mill at Ponders End, North London. 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 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 AEI in the late 1920s.
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 drying the wet plates, 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.
Three years later, while searching for a better carbon filament for his light bulb, Swan patented a process for squeezing nitro-cellulose through holes to form fibres. The textile industry has used his process.
Swan died in 1914 at Warlingham in Surrey.
1. ^ "Sir Joseph Swan (1828-1914)". Royal Pharmaceutical Society. http://www.rpsgb.org.uk/informationresources/museum/exhibitions/themotherofinvention/swanphot.html. Retrieved 2010-01-11. "Swan made groundbreaking discoveries in the fields of electric lighting and photography. He had already received the Legion of Honour 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"
* Tyne & Wear Archives Service Joseph Swan collection
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