Sir Joseph Wilson Swan
(1828 - 1914)


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Swan v.

Swan's Life
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Early Life

Joseph Wilson Swan was born at Pallion Hall in Sunderland to John and Isabella Swan on October 31st 1828. He was said to have had an enquiring mind even as a child. He augmented his education with a fascination of his surroundings, the industry of the area and reading. He attended lectures at the Sunderland Atheneum

First Employment

At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a pair of pharmacists, but unfortunately they died before the completion of his apprenticeship. He then joined a Newcastle chemical firm run by his brother-in-law, John Mawson. They produced collodion which was used in the 'wet plate' photographic process.


Joseph put much of his energies into testing and developing alternative processes, realising that the wet plate process had many drawbacks. The first commercially viable procedure for carbon printing allowing permanent photographic prints to be made was patented by Swan in 1882. Essentially this consisted of finely divided carbon embedded in gelatine and sensitised with potassium chromate. The process was sensitive enough to provide good tonal variation in the prints. Using variations in the carbon constituent sepia and red ink drawings could be reproduced.

In 1877 he invented the 'Dry plate' process using gelatine and silver bromide, so revolutionising the advance of photography. This was followed by the invention of bromide paper in 1879. Altogether over 70 patents were taken out by Joseph Swan in the field of photography.


The Electric Light Bulb

Joseph made good use of his time with Mawsons where he experimented with ways of extending the life of an electrically heated filament. During the first half of the 1870's Crooke's work with more efficient vacuum pumps and McLoed's gauge to measure the vacuum produced gave Swan the impetus to experiment with the heating of a filament in a vacuum. With a carbon filament sealed into a vacuum bulb he was able to produce an incandescent light without the oxidation that had limited the filament's life up to that point. He made further developments in filament materials to enable the production of the first successful incandescent light bulbs.

Swan described his bulb on 19th December 1879. On the 3rd February 1879 he demonstrated his bulbs to the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society thus lighting the first public building in the world with electric lighting. It was 9 months later before Edison managed to light a bulb for 13 hours continuously, and as has been noted Swan had had some success already with his carbon filament bulbs.

In 1880 Mosley St. in Newcastle was the first street in Britain to be lit by electric bulbs. Swan's home in Underhill Gateshead was the first private house to be lit electrically closely followed by Lord Armstrong's mansion in November 1880. Lord Armstrong had chaired the meeting of the Literary and Philosophical Society when Swan had demonstrated his bulbs. The following year the light was exhibited at the 1881 Paris Exhibition, for which he was awarded the 'Legion d'honeur' by the President. Edison also exhibited his version of incandescent electric lamps at the Exhibition but was unable to manage to illuminate his area at the time of the opening.

On December 28th 1881 Swan's electric lighting was used to light the stage of the Savoy Theatre. Richard D'Oyly Carte who had previously introduced the lighting to the Theatre auditorium,was enthusiastic about the nature of the lighting, because he said that it was safer and lacked the

"peculiar steely blue colour and the flicker .. inevitable in all systems of 'arc' lights."
Richard D'Oyly Carte

The Punch magazine carried a cartoon around this time, depicting 'Punch' as a magician holding a 'Swan lamp' and offering 'new lamps for old.'

In November 1882 the Savoy staged Iolanthe, the fairy operetta, and the Swan United Electric Light Company equipped the fairies with incandescent star lights worked by a small battery hidden behind their hair. This was the first time 'fairy lights' had been used and it is where the term, still in use today, originated.



Other studies led to numerous inventions in other fields

"His investigations in electro-chemistry led to the construction of a motor electric meter, an electric fire-damp detector, a miners' electric safety lamp and the production of gold leaf by electrodeposition"
Emily and Mary Swan

He was considered to be a brilliant scientist of his day and gathered many honours as a result. Beside a doctorate (D Sc.) from Durham University he received a Knighthood in King Edward VII's birthday Honours in 1904. He received other awards and honours from various scientific bodies.

"There are no inventions without a pedigree, meaning that nothing is developed in complete isolation, an inventor always draws on the work of others that have gone before."
Joseph Swan