Joseph Swan In­ven­tor

Ann Thomp­son cel­e­brates the amaz­ing man cred­ited with be­ing the orig­i­nal de­signer of the light bulb.

This England - - Great Britons -

E E light bulbs have trans­formed the world, en­abling us to carry on with our nor­mal lives re­gard­less of whether it is day or night, sunny or dark.

Many peo­ple credit Thomas Edi­son with in­vent­ing the light bulb, but os­eph Swan, who died over 100 years ago, was the orig­i­nal de­signer of the bulbs that Edi­son worked on.

os­eph Wil­son Swan was born on Oc­to­ber 1 2 in Sun­der­land, where his fa­ther was a chan­dler. oung os­eph of­ten went to stay with a rel­a­tive in the coun­try, not far from home, and be­came ac uainted with the lo­cal black­smith and car­pen­ter.

Swan’s for­mal ed­u­ca­tion started at a dame school (a small pri­vate es­tab­lish­ment run by women for a mod­est fee), where he learned to read and write. He then moved to a school for older chil­dren un­til he was thir­teen, when he started as an ap­pren­tice at a chemist’s, Hud­son and Os­bald­is­ton.

Dur­ing the 1 50s he went into busi­ness with his friend ohn Maw­son, open­ing the chemist’s shop Maw­son and Swan in New­cas­tle.

Part of Swan’s work at the chemist’s was in the rel­a­tively new field of pho­tog­ra­phy, de­vel­op­ing prints from neg­a­tives. He took out a patent on bro­mide pa­per, mak­ing the process much uicker and sim­pler.

Dur­ing Swan’s early life, most homes were lit with can­dles. Do­mes­tic gas light­ing was the pre­serve of the rich, although street lights started to use gas by early Vic­to­rian times.

The Ar­gand lamp, which was used in light­houses, had a glass fun­nel around a wick to im­prove the in­ten­sity of the light. It had been in­vented in the late 1 th cen­tury, but it was ex­pen­sive and, like gas lights, only used by the up­per classes.

Swan was a mem­ber of the Sun­der­land Athenaeum, an in­sti­tu­tion sim­i­lar to a li­brary with books for its mem­bers to read, but it also had vis­it­ing in­tel­lec­tu­als who gave lec­tures.

It was at the Athenaeum that Swan first read about an in­can­des­cent light bulb in­vented by an Amer­i­can by the name of ohn Starr. The glass bulb con­tained a car­bon rod sur­rounded by a vac­uum.

One of the vis­it­ing lec­tur­ers at the Athenaeum was Wil­liam Staite, who had made a “reg­u­la­tor lamp”. This clock­work de­vice burned car­bon at an even rate, but Staite talked about the prospect of fu­ture lamps us­ing elec­tric­ity passed through a plat­inum fil­a­ment.

It was this idea that prompted Swan to ex­per­i­ment, and he made the fore­run­ner of his light bulb in 1 60 by putting a car­bonised fi­bre into a vac­uum in­side a glass globe.

nfor­tu­nately, the di culty of main­tain­ing the vac­uum and keep­ing a steady sup­ply of elec­tric­ity caused the bulb to blow very uickly. When it did work, the light it emit­ted was very fee­ble.

Swan’s work on pro­duc­ing a vi­able in­can­des­cent light bulb was in­ter­rupted by ma­jor events in his per­sonal life. In 1 62 he mar­ried Frances White and set­tled in Gateshead. Several chil­dren were born to the cou­ple in the next few years.

How­ever, his part­ner and friend ohn Maw­son was killed in 1 67 when, act­ing in his ca­pac­ity as Sher­iff of New­cas­tle, he took a large amount of nitro-glyc­er­ine to Town Moor to be buried. The ex­plo­sives, which were be­ing moved be­cause they had been left unat­tended in a sta­ble, blew up en route.

Sadly, Frances died the next year, leav­ing Swan to bring up their three chil­dren alone. He subse uently mar­ried Han­nah, his sis­ter-in-law. At the time, this was il­le­gal un­der English law, so the cou­ple went to Swit er­land to tie the knot. They went on to have five chil­dren.

It was not un­til the mid 1 70s that Swan man­aged to make a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment to his light bulb. sing a strand of car­bon and an al­most per­fect vac­uum, he found that the fil­a­ment could be­come white hot, giv­ing off more light than his pre­vi­ous in­ven­tion.

As the fil­a­ment had low re­sis­tance, it needed rel­a­tively large cop­per wires to carry the cur­rent to it. Ad­vances in the sup­ply of elec­tric­ity had helped in the de­vel­op­ment of the bulb re­li­able gen­er­a­tors were now avail­able in­stead of very ba­sic bat­ter­ies.

Sim­i­larly, the process of mak­ing the bulb was im­proved with the in­ven­tion of a gad­get to make a vac­uum in­side the glass.

Swan was granted a patent for this in­can­des­cent bulb in 1 7 . The same year, his friend Sir Wil­liam Arm­strong be­came the first per­son in the world to have his house, Crag­side, lit by elec­tric­ity. Water from the lakes above the house was used to gen­er­ate hy­dro-elec­tric­ity and power an arc lamp. Arm­strong also made clever use of the lake water to op­er­ate a hy­draulic lift to make life eas­ier for the ser­vants.

Lord Arm­strong’s li­brary was the first room in the world to be lit by Swan’s fil­a­ment bulb in 1 0. The li­brary had four bulbs in a sphere hang­ing from the roof in an al­cove, and an­other four in globes fixed to the tops of vases.

In­su­lated dishes con­tain­ing mercury were con­nected to the elec­tric­ity sup­ply and placed un­der the vases, en­abling the di­rect cur­rent to en­ter the lamp by means of an in­di­vid­ual ex­posed wire.

The lin­ings of the vases were made from cop­per, al­low­ing the elec­tric cur­rent to leave via the lamp. When the light needed to be switched off, the vase was sim­ply lifted from the dish of mercury.

In 1 0, os­eph Swan’s Gateshead house was lit solely by elec­tric­ity the first in the world. The same year, he achieved an­other first when he gave a talk at the Lit­er­ary and Philo­soph­i­cal So­ci­ety in New­cas­tle, which for the oc­ca­sion be­came the first pub­lic build­ing to be il­lu­mi­nated by elec­tric­ity.

The fol­low­ing year, the Savoy in Lon­don be­came the first theatre to have elec­tric light­ing. By this time, Swan had his own com­pany. His light bulbs were rel­a­tively ex­pen­sive, at one pound and five shillings each.

The price went down to only five shillings a year later be­cause of soar­ing de­mand. Swan and Edi­son both had their lamps on dis­play at the Paris In­ter­na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion of 1 1, and again in 1 2 at the Crys­tal Palace Elec­tri­cal Ex­hi­bi­tion.

At about the same time that Swan re­ceived his patents, Thomas Edi­son was given patents in the SA for his im­proved ver­sion of Swan’s early bulb.

Af­ter court ac­tion was threat­ened over who was the real in­ven­tor, the two men agreed that Swan should have the rights to sell his bulbs here and Edi­son could sell his in Amer­ica. How­ever, Swan’s bulbs were only made on a small scale com­pared with Edi­son’s.

Swan im­proved his light bulb with a pro­ce­dure in which ni­tro­cel­lu­lose was shaped to pro­duce con­duct­ing fi­bres. Af­ter he was given a patent for this process, the Swan Elec­tric Lamp Com­pany used it to man­u­fac­ture light bulbs, while across the At­lantic, Edi­son’s fil­a­ments were made from bam­boo.

When Swan and Edi­son joined forces, they cre­ated a new com­pany called Edis­wan, which utilised cel­lu­lose in all its bulbs.

os­eph Swan was given the Free­dom of the City of New­cas­tle shortly be­fore his death in 1914. By then he had amassed more than 70 patents for his light bulbs, pho­to­graphic in­ven­tions and other de­vel­op­ments.

In 1906, Swan said, “If I could have had the power of choice of the par­tic­u­lar space of time within which my life should be spent, I be­lieve I would have cho­sen pre­cisely my ac­tual life­time.

“What a glo­ri­ous time it has been Surely no other seventy-eight years in all the long his­tory of the world ever pro­duced an e ual har­vest of in­ven­tion and dis­cov­ery for the ben­e­fi­cial use and enlightenment of mankind.”

Joseph Swan, Bri­tish physi­cist and chemist.

Joseph Swan in his work­shop.

Swan’s first in­can­des­cent light bulb.

A tablet erected in recog­ni­tion of the in­ven­tor.

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