Swan, Joseph Wilson 1828 - 1914

English; British

(1828-1914), Knight Chemist and Electrical Inventor

Joseph Wilson Swan was born on the 31st October 1828 at Pallion Hall, near Sunderland, co. Durham. His formal education was brief—a few years in a dame-school followed by a period at a boys' school near Sunderland, ending before his thirteenth birthday. From an early age he had learned much more by observing local craftsmen and the developing local industries.

In 1842 Swan was apprenticed to a Sunderland firm of druggists, Hudson and Osbaldiston. both died within three years so in 1846 he joined his friend and future brother-in-law, John Mawson, in his business of chemist and druggist in Newcastle. Mawson was killed in a tragic accident in 1867 and Swan, by then a partner, took over the management of the business. Working with wet photographic plates, he noticed that heat increased the sensitivity of the silver bromide emulsion. By 1871 he had devised a method of drying the wet plates, initiating the age of convenience in photography. Eight years later he patented bromide paper, the paper commonly used in modern photographic prints.

Swan's name is remembered chiefly for his invention of an incandescent electric lamp. Swan was able to demonstrate a technically and commercially viable lamp, with a filament of carbonized thread, at a public lecture in October 1880. A company was set up to produce the lamp and was superseded by a larger company in 1882. At this point the company making Edison's electric lamp began legal action, claiming that Swan was infringing Edison's patents. The case did not come to trial, because the two companies agreed to merge. Edison and Swan achieved commercial success, and by combining they were able to suppress competition in Britain. The lamps sold in Britain, however, were almost entirely of Swan's design. Swan patented an improved filament made of extruded cellulose in 1883, but it was not used commercially for some years.

Swan had lived at Low Fell, Gateshead, since 1869, but the headquarters of the Edison and Swan company were in London, so in 1883 he moved south, to Lauriston, a house in Bromley, Kent, which he fitted out with a laboratory. With more numerous engagements in London, the family moved again in 1894, to 58 Holland Park, London. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1894 and was knighted in 1904. He received honorary degrees from the University of Durham, and medals from the Royal Photographic Society, the Society of Chemical Industry, the Royal Society and the Society of Arts. Among other distinctions he was president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1888–9, of the Society of Chemical Industry in 1900–01, and the first president of the Faraday Society, in 1904.

Swan's business interests were diverse. He continued experimenting throughout his life, and was responsible for several other innovations, such as the chrome tanning of leather, which developed from the carbon process, and the cellular lead plate for rechargeable batteries, patented in 1881. By 1908 developing heart trouble made a quieter life necessary, and Swan moved to Overhill, Warlingham, Surrey, where he died on 27 May 1914.