Shining a light on Joseph Swan

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AN exhibition marking the centenary of the death of a famous son of Sunderland has opened to the public at the city’s museum.

Pallion-born physicist and chemist Joseph Swan won fame world-wide after inventing an incandescent light bulb in the 1870s – as well as electric safety lamps for miners.

AT WORK: Joseph Swan.

AT WORK: Joseph Swan.

But, despite his pioneering work in electricity and photography, Swan is often over-shadowed by Thomas Edison – who was the first to patent the light bulb in the US.

“Sir Joseph was one of the greatest English inventors,” said councillor John Kelly, Sunderland City Council’s portfolio holder for Public Health, Wellness and Culture.

“But, although his pioneering designs have had an incredible impact on the lives of nearly everybody around the world, he is unfortunately still often overlooked.”

Joseph, son of quarry manager John Swan and his wife Isabella, was born at Pallion Hall in 1828 and attended schools at Hendon Lodge and Hylton Castle until his teens.

“He had an enquiring mind from childhood, and supplemented his education by attending lectures at Sunderland Athenaeum,” said local historian Carol Roberton.

“At the age of 14 he was then apprenticed to Hudson and Osbaldiston’s pharmacy in Sunderland. Unfortunately, both chemists died before Swan completed his training.

“After that, he joined a Newcastle chemical firm run by his brother-in-law John Mawson, producing collodian – then used in the wet plate photographic process.”

Swan went on to become a partner in Mawson’s, which was renamed Mawson, Swan and Morgan, and in 1850 began working on a light bulb idea using carbonised paper.

Despite demonstrating a working device by 1860, however, the lack of “a good vacuum and an adequate electric source” caused him to abandon the invention for a time.

Instead, Swan devoted his talents to developing photographic processes – revolutionising the craft with a dry plate process using gelatine and silver bromide.

He then invented bromide paper in 1879 and, in 1882, patented the first commercially viable carbon printing design – allowing permanent photographic prints to be made.

“Swan never fully abandoned his light bulb idea, however, and returned to consider the problem in 1875 – with the aid of a carbonised thread as a filament,” said Carol.

“This filament glowed almost white-hot without catching fire, and was first publicly demonstrated by Sawn during a lecture for Newcastle Chemical Society in 1878.

“It didn’t work perfectly, as the lamp broke down, but Swan successfully repeated the exhibition in 1879 – proving he had solved the problem of incandescent lighting.”

Swan went on to develop a better filament, patenting the idea in 1880 and installing the new bulbs at his Low Fell home – the world’s first house lit by electric light.

Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Library became the first public room to boast electric light in 1880 too, while London’s Savoy Theatre became the first public building in 1881.

Theatre builder Richard D’Oyly Carte explained at the time: “The greatest drawbacks to the enjoyment of theatrical performances are the foul air and heat which pervades.

“Each gas-burner consumes as much oxygen as many people, and causes great heat besides. The incandescent lamps consume no oxygen and cause no perceptible heat.”

Swan went on to develop an electric safety lamp for miners in 1881 and, in 1883, he joined forces with inventor Thomas Edison to expand light bulb production globally.

“There are no inventions without a pedigree,” he later said. “Nothing is developed in complete isolation. An inventor draws on the work of others that have gone before.”

Swan was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for his inventions in 1894 and, in 1901, was awarded the honary degree of Doctor of Science from Durham University.

He was then knighted in 1904 and, in the same year, was awarded the Royal Society’s Hughes Medal - and also made an honorary member of the Pharmaceutical Society.

In his later years Swan – a twice-married father of nine – moved from the North East to London and then Warlingham in Surrey, where he died on May 27, 1914.

“Everyone who as ever had a photograph printed from a negative has benefited from Swan’s work,” said Coun Kelly.

“Coming from Pallion, he epitomised the character of Sunderland with his industry and desire to solve problems and improve technology.

“I’m proud to say that in these present times of car manufacturing, software solutions and ever developing educational facilities, that character is still strong in our city.

“It’s nice to know that, even over a hundred years ago, we were helping our neighbours see the light.”

l The new exhibition featuring Joseph Swan is on show at Sunderland Museum until June 29. Admission free.