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Joseph Swan

Sir Joseph Swan in his laboratory

Sir Joseph Wilson Swan [1828-1914]

A short biography


Joseph Wilson Swan was an inventor, pharmacist, chemist, physicist and electrical engineer 

Most famous for inventing the incandescent light lamp he also invented fairy lights, photographic paper, synthetic silk and a miner’s flameless safety light with a fire damp indicator. He was also a businessman and manufactured his inventions with the Mawson and Swan Company which worked in photography, pharmaceuticals, printing and even became yeast importers. In 1881 the Swan Electric Lighting company manufacturing lamps was set up in Benwell here in Newcastle.

Early Life 

Joseph Swan was born in 1828 in Pallion Hall, Sunderland. His father John and his Uncle Robert Cameron were inventors but John Swan’s limited business knowledge conflicted with his kindness and generosity leading to the family fortunes suffering. Joseph spent his early years roaming around the Sunderland area with his brother John and both had an interest in watching the local industry for example lime kiln works, blacksmiths, ship building and glass making. 

Pallion Hall, Sunderland, Swan's birthplace

His education started when he was sent to a dame school run by three elderly ladies who taught sewing, writing and reading.  A family friend John Ridley demonstrated an electrical machine to the family and this fascinated Joseph to want to know more. He attended school at Hendon Lodge and later at Hylton Castle but due to family finance he left school when he was thirteen years old. Then in 1842 he was apprenticed to the Sunderland druggists Hudson and Osbaldiston for six years. At this time, he attended lectures and made use of the scientific books in the library at the Sunderland Athenaeum. His interest in electric lighting started following a lecture by W.E. Staite on the principle of electric lighting using an iridio-platinum wire.

One day, passing the shop of Thomas Robson in Bridge Street, Sunderland, Joseph first saw a photographic print which prompted his interest in photography. However, his apprenticeship did not last long as the partners in the firm died within three years, so in 1846 Joseph left to work with a friend John Mawson in his chemist and druggist business where Mawson allowed the young Joseph to experiment and research his scientific ideas. But in 1867 his business partner, wife and twin boys died which pulled Swan’s attention away from experiments to focus attention on family and running the Mawson business. 

In 1869 he became interested in education and joined the Gateshead school board. Later he sat on Gateshead Council to promote his Liberal policies on universal education. Following a failure of a Bill to be passed through Parliament to allow a widower to marry his dead wife’s sister [then illegal in England), he travelled to Switzerland in 1871 to marry his wife’s sister Hannah who had looked after the children and household following her sister’s death. 

His contributions

In 1856 Swan worked with Mawson to develop and manufacture ‘Mawson’s Collodian’ a chemical used in wet plate photography which was a development refining the method created by F.S. Archer in 1851. In 1871 Swan developed a dry plate process for photography making it more convenient. George Eastman of Kodak bought the patent for Swan’s formula.

Print fading had been an issue for early photography and in 1864 Swan invented the process of photographic printing called the ‘carbon process’ [Autotype] to prevent this fading. Swan also made improvements in electro type and 'Photogravure,' by which method engravings are reproduced.

In 1879 he patented bromide paper; the paper most commonly still used for photographic printing today. The paper was coated with egg albumen to give a glossy surface and then sensitized. This allowed printing from negatives under artificial light. He also developed typographic half tone blocks which was to revolutionise book illustrations.

Swan did not create the actual idea of electric light as many were experimenting in this scientific field but he was able to solve the problems. In 1810 Sir Humphrey Davy had demonstrated an arc light producing light from heating metals and passing a current through them using a battery. In 1831 Michael Faraday discovered an electric current could be maintained by passing a magnet through a coil of wire but batteries at this time were expensive and did not produce enough power.

In 1878 he attended the Paris Exhibition where his purified pharmaceutical opium was demonstrated. There he saw demonstrations of attempts at electric lighting but none satisfied his wish for an affordable universal lamp.  He had the idea of a carbon filament, but it needed power and a vacuum to make it sustainable as a light source.  He contacted Charles Stearn of Birkenhead who was working in high vacua technology and asked him to run tests on the carbon filament. Stearn agreed and used glass blower Fred Topham to create the bulbs. After a few failures, by using the Sprengel air pump Swan could remove the air from the bulb and so prevent the carbon filament from burning out.

Swan's first electric light bulb design

Stern advised Swan to patent the incandescent light but instead, in 1878, Swann only patented degassing the filament and the bulb. In 1881 The Swan Electric Light Company was established in Benwell, Newcastle but since there were not sufficient glass blowers with the expertise to make the bulbs in Newcastle, special glass blowers were hired from the Thuringian district in Germany. 

Meanwhile in America, and working with a large team of scientists, Thomas Edison was also working on an incandescent lamp and in 1879 he claimed success, applying for the British patent no 4576 and in the following year produced a lamp using a bamboo filament and received a U.S. patent for an exact copy of Swan’s Light. 

Edison attempted to sue The Swan Electric Light Company for infringement of patent with Swan replying that the patent itself was invalid due to evidence of Joseph Swan’s public demonstrations/lectures years earlier. The case was heard at the Court of Appeals in London. In 1883 Edison’s legal advisors recommended that he would lose the case, damage his reputation and should settle out of court with Joseph Swan. It was therefore agreed that an extensive legal battle would benefit neither company and they united to form the Edison and Swan United Electric Light Company Limited [EdiSwan].   By merging their companies, they succeeded in virtually monopolising the manufacture of the light bulb on the strength of their combined patents, a situation which continued until Thomas Edison’s patent expired on 11th November 1893. 

Ediswan poster

As a side element of the lamp filament developments, Swan invented artificial silk since he had discovered that passing cotton thread through sulphuric acid makes it harden and become transparent. Named as ‘Parchmentised thread’ he used this in his first commercial lamp filament but continued to develop it using viscose which formed a textile and became what is known today as artificial silk. 

In 1881 Joseph Swan started to look at using his flame less lamp in a miner’s safety lamp and demonstrated his first attempt to the Newcastle Miners institute. Firedamp is a methane gas found in coal seams and highly flammable so part of the lamp included a firedamp indicator as a platinum spiral which glowed intensely in the lamp ifn firedamp was present.   He continued to develop it for the next five years but although all worked perfectly in the lamp it was expensive and was not adopted by mines.

Links to other figures and buildings 

Joseph Swan’s links to other well-known figures and buildings are extensive due to his work but also his keen interest in nature, writing, theatre, art and politics.

Joseph and his elder brother John were interested in Liberal revolutionary causes including that of Mazzini and Garibaldi in Italy. They met the young Italy party at Joseph Cowan’s house in Blaydon and Joseph Swan attended Cowan’s funeral in Newcastle in 1900 stating in a letter to his wife that Joseph Cowan had helped him in his early experiments by making equipment for him in his factory.

Swan's business partner John Mawson   

Mawson was killed in an explosion on the Town Moor

In 1867 his business partner and brother in law John Mawson, the then Sheriff of Newcastle, was killed in an explosion on the Town Moor in Newcastle while trying to dispose of Nitro-glycerine found in White Hart Yard in the Cloth Market in Newcastle. His wife and twin sons also died in 1867. He remained in their Leazes Terrace home for over a year but then moved the family to Underhill House in Kell Lane, Gateshead. In 1869 he took a holiday in the Lake District, one of the party being John Hancock, a pupil of Thomas Bewick and famous naturalist, and who later set up the Hancock Museum with his brother. He als designed Joseph Swan’s garden in his London home.

In the same year the Mawson and Swan business was extended to include stationery and book selling under the management of Thomas Morgan. New premises were taken in Grey Street [to become the shop Mawson, Swan and Morgan now Byron Burgers]. The original electric streetlamps are still outside this building.

Mawson and Swan's shop in 1860

In February 3rd 1879 Swan demonstrated his incandescent light to 700 people at the Lit & Phil in Newcastle and a month later demonstrated it in Gateshead Town Hall to the mayor.  He returned to the Lit & Phil in October 1880 where the 70 gas jets were turned down and the room illuminated with 20 lamps. Both meetings were chaired by Sir William Armstrong then chairman of the society. Attending the second lecture was John Holmes of Newcastle who patented the electric snap off light switch in 1884. He was President of the Lit & Phil from 1911 to 1914.

Plaque at the front of  the Lit & Phil

In 1879 the Mawson and Swan business premises on Mosley Street and the street itself were the first to be illuminated with electric light and Swan’s Gateshead home in Kell Lane was the first home to be so lit.

In 1880 Sir William Armstrong and Joseph Swan supervised the installation of Swan’s electric light at his mansion at Cragside, the power for the light being supplied by a Siemens dynamo electric machine attached to a turbine driven by water power from the estate’s lake. 

Cragside lit by electricity

The first theatre to take the lights was the Savoy in London fitted with 1,200 lights [824 on the stage alone]. Richard D’Oyly Carte was so impressed with the lights he commissioned Joseph Swan in 1882 to create lights for the fairies in ‘Iolanthe’ at the Savoy theatre. The small lights on the fairy costumes were naturally called fairy lights and we can still see them today bedecking every Christmas tree.


Sir Joseph Swan was born into a world of candles and oil lamps where those not able to afford these forms of light could only be active during sun light hours. He left the world a more illuminated place.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1894, and received the honorary degrees of M.A. and D.Sc. of the University of Durham. On the close of the Electrical Exhibition of Paris in 1881, he received the decoration of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He was an Honorary Member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, was President of that Institution in 1898-9, and of the Society of Chemical Industry during 1900-1901. In 1904 the newly established Faraday Society elected him their first President and he was knighted for his services to science. 

His last honour was to be the Freedom of Newcastle to be awarded at the same time as Charles Parson [inventor of the turbine]. Failing health made him ask for a postponement until the summertime when he could make the long journey north from his London home. Unfortunately he died on 27th May 1914 at the age of 86 so the award was made posthumously.

His ability to take hold of an idea, develop it, not stop when he hit a hurdle but look for those who could help brought many ideas to fulfilment. His continuous reading and search for knowledge with the ability to find solutions to others’ experimental problems made him the great inventor, filing 70 patents in his lifetime.

Swan penned a song which was printed in 1880 in the Weekly Chronicle concerning the invention of the incandescent lamp. It is only fitting to end this biography in his own words:

“So here’s to Swan, wor canny man,

His Ilektric leet is fine, sor

That burns away an’ rivals day

In honour ov wor Tyne, sor.

The wax and candles had thor time,

The gas wor sarvant, tee, sor

But seun Swan’s leet ‘ll blink like stars

Frov Sanget te the Kee, sor.”

Swan with his second wife Hannah at the London home

About the author

Amanda Hepburn

Amanda has a keen interest in history and in the past has been a volunteer guide with the Catherine Cookson tours in South Tyneside , Victoria Tunnel and at Wallington National Trust (where she volunteers as well as Seaton Delaval Hall.) 

She became a Newcastle city guide in2019 and is training as a professional Blue Badge guide for the North East.

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