Updated 26-XII-2018

James B. Lindsay

This article was written by fellow lamp engineer and collector Edward J. Covington, and originally appeared on his own website of biographical sketches of persons involved in the lamp industry. Following his passing in February 2017, and with kind permission of his family, Ed's words have been preserved here in the hope of maintaining access to his writings for the benefit of subsequent generations.

James Lindsay10

Many efforts to produce an incandescent lamp were made before Starr, Swan, Edison and others did their work. The details of some of these might never be known. One such effort is mentioned when the name "James Bowman Lindsay" is typed into a search engine. James Bowman Lindsay (Sep 8, 1799 - Jun 29, 1862) was born in the town of West Hills, County Angus, Scotland and the claim is made on many websites that about 1835 he developed a prototype of an incandescent lamp. The details of Lindsay's electric light experiments apparently are not known but it is of interest to write down some of what is known.

James Bowman Lindsay was the son of John Lindsay and Elizabeth Lindsay, nee Bowman18. Arbroath, Lindsay's birthplace, is north and east of Dundee, which is on the estuary of the River Tay, which leads into the North Sea. J. B. Lindsay is mentioned in some history books today for three main areas of endeavor. One is for a "constant" electric light, a second is for telegraphy and a third is for a Pentacontaglossal Dictionary. The interest here regards only the electric light. Because there are, apparently, no details of his lighting apparatus, verbatim newspaper articles and letters of Lindsay's will be presented before comments are made by this writer regarding his work on an electric light source. The material will be presented in the time order in which they appeared. The following newspaper article6 was printed on August 7, 1835:

"Mr. Lindsay, a teacher in town, formerly lecturer to the Watt Institute, succeeded on the evening of Saturday, July 25, in obtaining a constant electric light. It is upwards of two years since he turned his attention to this subject, but much of that time has been devoted to other avocations. The light in beauty surpasses all others, has no smell, emits no smoke, is incapable of explosion, and not requiring air for combustion can be kept in sealed glass jars. It ignites without the aid of a taper, and seems peculiarly calculated for flax houses, spinning mills, and other places containing combustible materials. It can be sent to any convenient distance, and the apparatus for producing it can be contained in a common chest."
The following letter, written by Mr. Lindsay, was printed7 on October 30, 1835:
"Sir, - As a notice of my electric light has been extensively circulated, some persons may be anxious to know its present state, and my views respecting it.

"The apparatus that I have at present is merely a small model. It has already cost a great deal of labour, and will yet cost a good deal more before my room is sufficiently lighted. Had circumstances permitted, it would have been perfected two years ago, as my plans were formed then. I am writing this letter by means of it at 6 in. or 8 in. distant; and, at the present moment, can read a book at the distance of 1-1/2 feet. From the same apparatus I can get two or three lights, each of which is fit for reading with. I can make it burn in the open air, or in a glass tube without air, and neither wind nor water is capable of extinguishing it. It does not inflame paper nor any other combustible. These are facts.

"As I intend in a short time to give a lecture on the subject, my views on the further progress will be unfolded then. A few of these, however, may be mentioned just now.

"Brilliant illumination will be obtained by a light incapable of combustion; and, on its introduction to spinning mills, conflagrations there will be unheard of. Its beauty will recommend it to the fashionable; and the producing apparatus, framed, may stand side by side with the piano in the drawing-room. Requiring no air for combustion, and emitting no offensive smell, it will not deteriorate the atmosphere in the thronged hall. Exposed to the open air it will blaze with undiminished lustre amidst tempests of wind and rain; and, being capable of surpassing all lights in splendour, it will be used in lighthouses and for telegraphs. The present generation may yet have it burning in their houses and enlightening their streets. Nor are these predictions the offshoots of an exuberant fancy or disordered imagination. They are the anticipated results of laborious research and of countless experiments. Electricity, moreover, is destined for mightier feats than even universal illumination. J. B. Lindsay Dundee, October 28, 1835."

Two lectures were given by Lindsay in Thistle Hall, in Dundee, on Thursday, January 15, 1836 and then again on Friday, April 21, 183715. In a letter written on January 26, 1847 Lindsay said15:
"About fifteen years ago I made a great variety of experiments in Electricity, and constructed an apparatus for procuring electric light for illumination instead of gas. About ten or twelve years ago I gave two public lectures on this subject, illustrated by experiments, in Dundee. About fifteen years ago I also perceived the applicability of Electricity as a telegraph, and mentioned it to many persons, but such an idea was generally ridiculed as Utopian. This was long before such an application was hinted at in the public prints, and before Electric Telegraphs were in existence. I also made many experiments on the application of the same science for power instead of steam, but do not claim the merit of being the first that did so. About nine or ten months [corrected in next letter to 'nineteen months'] ago I proposed and described a submarine Telegraph, and, I am convinced, was the first that made such a proposal. In reference to this, I made many experiments, and telegraphed through ponds in Dundee. An account of this was then given in the local newspapers. The Lexicon alone has kept me from turning my whole attention to Electricity, but, were it finished, I would once more be free. The Electric Light I have obtained, being from a model, is necessarily small, the plates being only one inch square; but by enlarging them, a light could be got far surpassing gas in brilliance."
In 1893 several documents regarding Lindsay were given to the Dundee Public Library15. Among these was a brief autobiographical sketch of Lindsay. It read:
"Previous to the discovery of Oersted, I had made many experiments on magnetism, with the view of obtaining from it a motive power. No sooner, however, was I aware of the deflection of the needle and the multiplication of the power of coils of wire than the possibility of power appeared certain, and I commenced a series of experiments in 1832. The power on a small scale was easily obtained, and during these experiments I had a clear view of the application of electricity to telegraphic communication. The light also drew my attention, and I was in a trilemma whether to fix upon the power, the light, or the telegraph. After reflection I fixed upon the light as the first investigation, and had many contrivances for augmenting it and rendering it constant. Several years were spent in experiments, and I obtained a constant stream of light on 25th July, 1835. Having satisfied myself on this subject, I returned to some glossological investigations that had been left unfinished, and was engaged with these till 1843. In that year I proposed a submarine telegraph across the Atlantic, after having proved the possibility by a series of experiments. Inquiries on other subjects have since that time engaged my attention, but I eagerly desire to return to electricity."
References to Davy's work with an electric light source usually refer to his discovery of the electric discharge. Regarding that discovery Davy said3,19:
"When pieces of charcoal about an inch long and one sixth of an inch in diameter, were brought near each other (within the thirtieth or fortieth part of an inch,) a bright spark was produced, and more than half the volume of the charcoal became ignited to whiteness, and by withdrawing the points from each other a constant discharge took place through the heated air, in a space equal to at least four inches, producing a most brilliant ascending arch of light, broad, and conical in form in the middle."
This effect was observed with the use of a very powerful voltaic battery - much more powerful than what Lindsay probably had at his disposal. In Lindsay's case the distance that his points would have had to approach one another to observe any breakdown of the atmospheric gases would have been much less than 1/40th to 1/30th of an inch (0.6 - 0.8 mm); that is, the potential difference between electrodes probably was too low. It stands to reason then that what Lindsay really had to do with his limited power source was to have his "electrode" points touch, which, in essence, is simply akin to connecting a simple flashlight (torch) circuit. The use of his light source at a writing distance of six to eight inches suggests that this probably was the situation; that is, such a low light level does not suggest a discharge source but rather an incandescent one.

In Davy's book, which was printed in 18123, he mentioned that the first work in which objects were heated to a great extent by a voltaic battery was due to Fourcroy, Vauquelin and Thenard. However, he described in detail the more extensive works performed by Children, which were reported in 18092 and 18155. With his large voltaic battery Children was able to bring wires of lengths as long as four feet to luminous levels. Three feet of platinum wire of 1/30th of an inch in diameter, for example, was heated to a bright red, visible by strong daylight. Eighteen inches of the same type wire were completely fused in about twenty seconds. It is possible, then, that Lindsay simply repeated, knowingly or unknowingly, experiments that had been done as much as twenty-five years earlier; his light was of a low brightness and was accomplished, perhaps, with platinum wire. The use of platinum would have resulted in a light source that was not affected detrimentally by the oxygen in the atmosphere. Therefore, the continuous light obtained by Lindsay probably was not a steady state electric discharge but rather a crude incandescent source lighted by a voltaic battery.

There is little reason to exclude the efforts made by a person who lived in Scotland in 1835 when lamp histories are written. Perhaps his name does not belong on the same page with that of Swan, for example, but progress is made in knowing as well as unknowing ways, and a more detailed story of Lindsay might enrich that history. Others have said, and this writer simply repeats the same conclusion - that Lindsay should be remembered as one who visualized the potential of electricity for the purpose of lighting and telegraphy. Although his name is seldom mentioned in incandescent lamp history, Gugliemo Marconi (1874-1937) gave recognition to Lindsay15 for his early efforts in sending telegraph signals.

Note: The drawing of Lindsay was scanned from Reference 10.

I am most grateful to David Kett, Senior Library and Information Officer, Central Library, Wellgate, Dundee, Scotland, for obtaining and providing articles pertinent to Mr. Lindsay. Thanks are also extended for the response and articles from the Dundee City Government website, and in particular, Eileen Moran, Library and Information Worker. In response to a question from the writer, Ms Moran mentioned that the population of Dundee in 1835 was over 45,000 and at the present time is over 145,000. Karen Findlay, Arbroath's Assistant Librarian, provided information on the place of residence of Lindsay in Carmyllie.

  1. "On the Electricity Excited by the Mere Contact of Conducting Substances of Different Kinds", Alessandro Volta, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol.90, 1800, pp.403-431. This article is in the French language.
  2. "An Account of Some Experiments, Performed with a View to Ascertain the Most Advantageous Method of Constructing a Voltaic Apparatus, for the Purposes of Chemical Research", John George Children, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol.99, 1809, pp.32-38.
  3. Elements of Chemical Philosophy, Sir Humphry Davy, Printed for J. Johnson and Co., St. Paul's Church-Yard, 1812, pg 151.
  4. "A Method of Drawing Extremely Fine Wires", William Hyde Wollaston, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol.103, 1813, pp.114-118.
  5. "An Account of Some Experiments with a Large Voltaic Battery", J. G. Children, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol.105, 1815, pp.363-374.
  6. Dundee, Perth & Cupar Advertiser, August 7 1835.
  7. Dundee, Perth & Cupar Advertiser, October 30 1835.
  8. "On the Application of Voltaic Ignition to Lighting Mines," W. R. Grove, The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, Vol.XXVII, 1845, pp.442-446.
  9. "An Incandescent Lamp Antedating Farmer or Goebel", Electricity, Vol.VII No.21, Dec 5 1894, p.250.
  10. "A Genius in Humble Life—James Bowman Lindsay", Dundee Advertiser / 1894 Year Book, pp.219-222.
  11. "A History of Wireless Telegraphy - Including Some Bare-Wire Proposals for Subaqueous Telegraphs", J. J. Fahie, William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London, 1901, pp.13-32.
  12. "An American Tribute to J. Bowman Lindsay", 1903 Dundee Year Book, pp.156-157.
  13. "George Children", Dictionary of National Biography, Vol.IV, The Macmillan Co., London, 1908, p.249.
  14. "John George Children", Dictionary of National Biography, Vol.IV, The Macmillan Co., London, 1908, pp.249-250.
  15. "James Bowman Lindsay and Other Pioneers of Invention", A. H. Millar, Dundee: Malcolm C. Macleod, 1925, pp.18-27; foreword by Senatore Marconi.
  16. http://www.dundeecity.gov.uk/centlib/jbl/jblchron.htm
  17. http://www.dundee.ac.uk/archives/genuki/ANS/Carmyllie/
  18. http://freepages.folklore.rootsweb.com/~bldr/carmyllie.html
  19. This website. Look for the write-up on Humphry Davy in the section titled "From Alessandro Volta to William Robert Grove," which is under the heading "Miscellaneous Lamp Topics."