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