Joseph Swan (1828-1914)

Joseph Swan was a Sunderland-born physicist and chemist who helped to place the North East at the forefront of modern invention through his pioneering experiments with photography and electric lighting. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1894 and, in 1904, was knighted.   Swan, J.W. Letter to Mr. Worsnop. 9th November 1897. Manuscript Album, 147


It was while he worked for John Mawson that Swan experimented with photography, improving the permanency, definition and contrasts of images by refining the wet collodion process of exposing and developing photographic plates and by introducing backing paper. Unsatisfactory dry plates were available from 1871 but Swan also improved this method after realising the importance of heat in the preparation of silver gelatine emulsion. Swan also developed bromide printing paper onto which negatives could be printed under artificial light.

In layman's terms, Swan's experiments represented significant contributions to photography: improving image capture, making photography more accessible, making enlargements possible and even helping to revolutionise astronomical photography.


Electric lighting

In 1860, Swan created a crude bulb comprising a partially-evacuated glass bulb with a carbonised paper filament. It soon expired. The lamp which he demonstrated to the Newcastle Chemical Society in 1879 and at the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle, in 1880, took advantage of Charles Henry Stearn's work on vacuums having an almost completely evacuated bulb with a carbonised thread filament. Little residual oxygen meant the bulb was practical - it glowed white-hot without catching fire or causing blackening.

There was great interest in Swan's experiments - the Swan Electric Light Company was established in 1881 and yet, on 24th December 1880, in a letter to Robert Spence Watson, Albert, Earl Grey pre-emptively wrote:

“If there is any chance of taking up shares in Swan's Light Cy I would be very much obliged to you if you wdremember me.”
Grey, A. Letter to Robert Spence Watson. 24th December 1880.
Spence Watson Papers SW 1/7/38

Swan truly made a name for himself with electric lighting and, in doing so, achieved a number of 'firsts' for the North East: his house in Low Fell was the first private residence to have electric light when he installed incandescent lamps in his drawing room; Mosley Street in Newcastle was the first public road in the world to be electrically lit (1880); Newcastle became one of the first towns to be so lit; and Benwell was home to the first light bulb factory in the world. Lord Armstrong's Cragside mansion was the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity; in 1880 he installed Swan's light bulbs in what was then the largest and most complete application of Swan's method of lighting.

Writing to Mr. Worsnop, a photographer in Rothbury, in 1897, Swan reflected on the installation of his lights at Cragside seventeen years previously:

Yes so far as I know Cragside was the first house in England properly fitted with my electric lamps - I had greatly wished that it should be & when I told him so he [i.e. Lord Armstrong] readily assented. There had, previously to the introduction of the incandescent lamp into the house been an arc lamp in the picture gallery - that was taken down & my lamps were substituted, but was a delightful experience for both of us when the gallery was first lit up. The speed of the dynamo had not been quite rightly adjusted to produce the strength of current in the lamps that they required - the speed was too fast & the current too strong, consequently the lamps were far above their normal brightness; but the effect was splendid & never to [be] forgotten
Swan, J.W. Letter to Mr. Worsnop. 9th November 1897.
Manuscript Album, 147

In 1883, Swan went into business with the American, Thomas Edison, after a period of rivalry. Both men had apparently made similar but independent developments in electric lighting. This merged company came to be known as “Ediswan” and relocated, in 1886, to premises in London.   Early 20th century (turn of the century) light bulb etched Ediswan, 220-16-A-29


In pursuit of an improved carbon filament for his lamps, Swan experimented with cellulose. Cellulose (derived from wood pulp which has been treated with chemical reagents) forms a viscous solution when added to carbon disulphide and sodium hydroxide. In 1883, Swan passed his solution through the perforations of a spinneret into an acid bath to form fibres of 'artificial silk'. While Swan used the fibres for his filaments, his wife created fabrics and these were exhibited in London in 1885. In 1889 a French chemist, Louis Comte de Chardonnet, developed the process for the textile industry.5 By 1924, artificial silk had become known as rayon and today it is widely used, for example, in the production of clothing and surgical products.

Swan was a scientist first; businessman second although his inventions had lasting commercial applications:

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 78 years in all the long history of the world ever produced an equal harvest of invention and discovery for the beneficial use and enlightenment of mankind.
Swan (1906) quoted. in Clouth, p.[1].


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