Updated 03-I-2019

Sir Joseph Wilson Swan

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.

Sir Joseph Wilson Swan3

Research into the history of the electric incandescent lamp would be incomplete without the unearthing of writings regarding the persons involved in the development. In the United States much has been written about Thomas Alva Edison, and rightly so, but other inventors throughout the world also contributed significantly to the knowledge base that allowed this invention to light up the world. One such person was Joseph Wilson Swan. The following short write-up is credited to two of Swan's nieces and is presented here verbatim.

About 1918 two nieces of Sir Joseph Wilson Swan (1828-1914) wrote a biography of their father, John Cameron Swan (1827-1916), older brother of Joseph. A short chapter from that book gives their story about their world-famous uncle. Of their uncle, Emily and Mary Swan said:

"Of the leading men of the nineteenth century (which may justly be called the 'Golden Age' of Science), Joseph Wilson Swan's name will ever remain a household word, not only in the world of science, but throughout all civilized nations where every city and home enjoy the benefits of his great researches and inventions.

"His energies and investigations were not confined solely to the development of electricity, which which his name is most prominently associated, but the world of art is laid out under an immeasureable debt of gratitude for his discoveries in photography. It was out of his patient investigations and ideas of thirty years, that the invention of the 'Carbon Process' grew, and later, led to the discovery of the rapid 'Dry Plate,' which method revolutionised the whole art of photography.

"It was with Uncle Mawson in the Mosley Street establishment, where he had many opportunities for work in chemistry, that Uncle Joseph began the manufacture of collodion, for which the firm became so noted, and which led him to make so many important discoveries in the art of photography, notably the 'Carbon Process,' which he patented in 1864. This was the first practicable process for making a permanent print, and it was followed later by the discovery of the rapid 'Dry Plate.'

"Out of these inventions many others were evolved which have added lustre to his name, among others being the process of 'Photogravure,' by which method the most beautiful engravings are reproduced.

"Added to these were the many improvements in electro-type and other processes, one of which is known by the name of 'Swan-type.' He also invented and patented 'Bromide Paper' for printing from negatives, and one may say there is scarcely a branch of photography that is not indebted to him for its origin or improvement. By his typographic half-tone blocks he revolutioned the art of book illustration.

"In 1885 the late Queen ordered a photogravure of two of her favourite dogs, and was so pleased with the result that she ordered another plate and authorised the printers to put on the engravings 'by special permission of her Majesty.' "His investigations in electro-chemistry led to the construction of a motor electric meter, an electric fire-damp detector, a miners' electric safety lamp and the production of gold leaf by electrodeposition.

"Miss Annie Ridley in her book 'A Backward Glance,' which is the story of her father's life, gives an extract from a letter of Mr. John Ridley, written from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in 1867, in which he says:-

'I have been seeing Joseph Swan's carbon process, and I never was more interested in my life! It is enough for a lifetime, or even for a generation of men, to produce such results with so many difficulties overcome. It takes my breath away, as one of the wonderful things of the world.'
"In another passage where she describes her father's success in the construction of an electrical machine, she tells how this machine may be said to have given Uncle Joseph his first introduction to electricity, for he was only seven years old when he stood on an insulated stool charged from the battery constructed by Mr. Ridley.

"It was in 1845 that Uncle Joseph attended a lecture given by Mr. James E. Staite, of Sunderland, who illustrated his lecture by shewing the incandescence by electricity of a piece of platino-iridium wire, supplying the current by means of a large battery of voltaic cells. From this lecture Uncle Joseph conceived the idea that if he could find a sufficiently resisting material for the filament, and enclose it in a vacuous globe, he would be able to produce a durable incandescent lamp. He continued his experiments and achieved a partial success, for in 1860 he was able to show to some of his friends a lamp with an arch of carbonized cardboard enclosed in a globe from which the air had been exhausted, but though it emitted a light the carbon strip bent, and finally broke. Between 1870 and 1880 he overcame the diffuculties of his earlier efforts.

"These experiments were facilitated by the invention of the Sprengel airpump, followed later by inventions of other men of Science, Sir W. Crookes and Mr. Stearn, and still further was he assisted by the greatly improved methods of generating electricity by means of Dr. Wilde's dynamo-electric machine. It was owing to the Sprengel air-pump that the necessary vacuum was obtained for the first time, and this enabled the continuous illumination of the electric lamp to become an accomplished commercial success.

"The first incandescent filament electric lamp was exhibited after a lecture given by Uncle Joseph in February, 1879, at the Literary and Philosophical Society lectureroom of Newcastle-upon-Tyne when the late Lord Armstrong took the chair. It created quite a sensation, and when shortly afterwards an electric lamp was placed in a gas lamp in Mosley Street it drew large and enthusiastic crowds. This lamp was made the subject of a lecture, and shown during the lecture at Gateshead, a few nights after that of February, 1879.

"Not content with these early successes, he continued his investigations and improvements until he was able to produce a uniform filament which gave wonderfully satisfactory results and superseded all other previous experiments.

"On the occasion of another lecture delivered on October 20th, 1880, at the Literary and Philosophical Society, Newcastle, the room was entirely lighted by Swan lamps, this being the first time a public building was lighted by electricity.

"The following month, November 23rd, 1880, Uncle Joseph exhibited the light at the Institute of Electrical Engineers. Father describes the event as a splendid success, in a letter written at eleven p.m. the same evening. It is full of pardonable pride and intense pleasure for the honours and congratulations paid to this gifted and much loved brother:—He says:—'Really it was a treat indeed to see Joe realise such a complete success. One after another of the great men rising to congratulate and compliment him, and the entire audience enthusiastically endorsing every word of praise which was spoken. All the 'bigwigs' in the electrical world, and a hosts of experts were there. There was a chorus of compliments from the professors.'

"The following year (1881) the light was exhibited at the Paris Exhibition, where in the beautiful, large rooms it was shown to great advantage. At the close of the Exhibition the President presented Uncle Joseph with the order of the 'Chavalier de la Legion d'Honneur.'

"At that time there were only two houses lit by electricity, his own and the late Lord Armstrong's residence at Cragside, Rothbury. At Cragside, the dynamo was driven by water power from a waterfall on the estate.

"Lord Salisbury arranged, with Uncle's co-operation, for a similar installation at Hatfield House, and later, the Savoy Theatre, London, was lighted by Swan lamps. The late D'Oyley Carte introduced the light in the Fairies' scene in 'Iolanthe.' It was the first occasion when the light was used for theatre illumination. Dr. Spence Watson, his old friend and legal adviser, was present with him to witness the charming scene and to take the steps which led to the formation of the Swan Electric Light Company. The 'City of Richmond' was the first ship to adopt the new light.

"About this time there appeared a clever cartoon in Punch, depicting 'Punch' as the magician with a 'Swan' lamp in his hand, offering 'new lamps for Old.'

"Many were the honours from time to time conferred on this great man of science. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1894, and later, was awarded the Society's 'Hughes' Gold Medal. In 1898, he was President of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, and shared the distinction, with Lord Kelvin and Dr. Wilde, of being an honorary member of the Institute. He received the 'Albert' medal of the Royal Society of Arts, in 1906. The University of Durham conferred on him the degree of M.A., which was followed in 1900 by the degree of D.Sc. He was also President of the Society of Chemical Industry and was the first President of the Faraday Society, and Vice-President of the Senate of University College, London. In 1904, he was a recipient of the late King Edward VIIth's birthday honours, receiving a knighthood in recognition of his valuable services to art and science. This honour was universally applauded as a distinction well merited and only too long delayed. On the death of the late Dr. Spence Watson he was elected President of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society, June, 1911. It was no small gratification to him to be associated with what may be called the home of his early triumps. It was characteristic of the man that he continued his scientific investigations practically to the end of his long life.

"Singularly pathetic and tragic was the fact that, within a month or so of his death, arrangements were being made to still further honour his name by presenting him with the Freedom of the City of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The actual ceremony was postponed to allow him to travel North in more genial weather, but the Council had already in March, 1914, carried the resolution submitted by the Lord Mayor, Councillor Johnstone Wallace, that he and Sir Charles Parsons, of turbine fame, should be made honorary Freemen of the City. Continued failing health led to postponements to the date of presentation. Unfortunately, the hopes of his recovery by those around him were not destined to be realised, for he passed away, after a few hours serious illness, on May 27th, 1914.

"As, by the vote of the Council, he was actually an honorary Freeman, it only remained for the representatives of his family to receive the scroll. This, with a very handsome service of silver plate, the Lord Mayor, in a moving speech, presented to his son, Kenneth R. Swan. The ceremony took place on July 10th, 1914, in conjunction with the presentation to Sir Charles Parsons. The graceful and brilliant speech made by Kenneth on the occasion was in every way worthy, not only of the event, but of the revered memory of him they had assembled to honour. Nothing could have been more elegant and appropriate than the well-chosen language in which he accepted the gift on behalf of his mother and family.

"Prominent among the distinguished company was the aged and devoted brother. It was peculiarly touching that he who had so frequently rejoiced in the early triumphs, should be present on the occasion of this posthumous honour to give his farewell tribute to one of the noble band of 'Men who have ennobled life by their discoveries in the arts, and who have earned by desert the remembrance of others.'

"Sir Joseph Swan was twice married. He had five children by his first wife, two of them, twins, died in infancy, but of the five children born to him by his second wife, only the four older ones, with his widow, survived him.

"The death of the youngest daughter at the age of twenty-nine was an intense grief, for she was as charming as she was gifted, and deservedly beloved by every member of the family."

The Swan family at Bryn-y-Gwyn, Dolgelley, Wales, ca. late 1890s8 The individuals are, from left to right:
Back Row: Hilda Swan, Hannah Swan, Joseph Swan and Isobel Swan.
Middle Row: Dorothy Swan, Maria (sister of Hannah), Percival Swan.
Front Row: Kenneth Swan, Ethel Gane (a friend), Mary Swan.

British Patents
  1. GB 1894 03228 - 14.02.1894 - Improvements in and Apparatus for Desilverizing Lead.
  2. GB 1894 21729 - 10.11.1894 - Improvements in and Apparatus for the Manufacture of Nitro-cellulose or Gun Cotton.
  3. GB 1894 21729 - 18.02.1895 - Improvements in Means to be Employed in the Manufacture or Production of Cyanides.
  4. GB 1897 15609 - 30.06.1897 - Improvements in Electrical Switches.
  5. GB 1903 08478 - 14.04.1903 - Improvements in Apparatus to be Employed in the Manufacture or Production, of Cyanides.
  6. GB 1904 28392 - 27.12.1904 - Improvements in the Methods of Printing from Photo-engraved Intaglio Plates.
  7. GB 1909 26258 - 12.11.1909 - Improvements in, and Apparatus for, the Manufacture of Alkaline Cyanides.
  8. GB 1910 25100 - 28.10.1910 - Improvements in, and Apparatus for, the Manufacture of Sodium and Potassium.
  9. GB 1913 07987 - 04.04.1913 - Improvements in the Manufacture of Sodium and Apparatus for use therewith.

  1. "The Subdivision of the Electric Light", J.W. Swan, Telegr. Engin. Journ., Vol.9, 1880, pp.339-349.
  2. [Description of his electric lamp], J.W. Swan, Transactions of the North of England Institute of Mining Engineers, Vol.30, 1881, pp.149-155.
  3. "On an Electric Safety-Lamp, with Portable Secondary Battery", J.W. Swan, Transactions of the North of England Institute of Mining Engineers, Vol.31, 1882, pp.117-118.
  4. "Perception of Color", J.W. Swan, Nature, Vol.26, 1882, p.246.
  5. "Voltaic Accumulation" [1881], J.W. Swan, Newcastle Chem. Soc. Trans., Vol.5, 1883, pp.122-130.
  6. "Electric Lighting by Incandescence" [1882], J.W. Swan, Roy. Instit. Proc., Vol.10, 1884, pp.33-43; Chemical News, Vol.46, 1882, pp.49-51, 59-60; Nature, Vol.26, 1882, pp.356-359.
  7. "On a Portable-Electric Safety Lamp for Miners" [With discussion] [1885], J.W. Swan, Transactions of the North of England Institute of Mining Engineers, Vol.35, 1886, pp.51-64.
  8. "On Improvements in Electric Safety Lamps", J.W. Swan, Reports of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. London, 1886, pp.496-499.
  9. "On an Improved Electric Safety-Lamp for Miners" [With discussion] [1886], J.W. Swan, Transactions of the North of England Institute of Mining Engineers, Vol.36, 1887, pp.3-11, 55-59.
  10. "Note on the Employment of Chromic Acid Instead of Nitric Acid in the Bunsen Cell", J.W. Swan, The Electrician, a Weekly Journal of Telegraphy, Electricity and Applied Chemistry. London, Vol.23, 1889, pp.652-653.
  11. "Electro-Metallurgy" [1892], J.W. Swan, Notice of the Proceedings at the Meetings of the Members of the Royal Institution, with Abstracts of the Discourses Delivered at the Evening Meetings. London, Vol.13, 1893, pp.625-636.
  12. "On Some Voltaic Combinations with a Fused Electrolyte and a Gaseous Depolariser", J.W. Swan, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Vol.56, 1894, pp.55-64.
  13. "Twenty-Five Years' Progress in Incandescent Lighting", J.W. Swan, The Electrical Review, [London], Vol.41, 1897, pp.626-627. Also, Electrical Review [New York], Vol.31 No.21, Nov 24 1897, p.248; No.22, Dec 1 1897, p.267.
  14. "Stress and Other Effects Produced in Resin and in a Viscid Compound of Resin and Oil by Electrification" {1897], J.W. Swan, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Vol.62, 1898, pp.38-46.
  15. Inaugural Address, "The Progress of Electro-chemical Industries" [1898], J.W. Swan, Inst. Elect. Engin. Jl. , Vol.27, 1899, pp.8-34.
  16. "Measurements of the Absolute Specific Resistance of Pure Electrolytic Copper", J.W. Swan & John G. A. Rhodin, Roy. Soc. Proc., Vol.56, 1894, pp.64-81.

  1. "Twenty-Five Years' Progress in Incandescent Lighting", J.W. Swan, Electrical Review [New York], Vol.31 No.21, Nov 24 1897, p.248; Vol.31 No.22, Dec 1 1897, p.267.
  2. "Obituary Notices: Sir Joseph Wilson Swan", Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Vol.52 1914, p.794.
  3. "John Cameron Swan, His Family and Friends, 1827-1916", Emily & Mary Swan, Headley Bros., Ashford, Kent, ca 1918, pp.41-51.
  4. "Sir Joseph Wilson Swan F.R.S. - A Memoir", M.E.Swan & K.R.Swan, Ernest Benn Limited, London, 1929.
  5. "Sir Joseph Swan's Electrical Work", J. Swinburne, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Vol.67, 1929, p.291.
  6. "Brief Personal Recollections in Connection With the Jubilee of the Invention of the Carbon Incandescent Electric Lamp by Sir Joseph Wilson Swan in 1878", Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Vol.67, 1929, p.293.
  7. "Sir Joseph Swan and the Invention of the Incandescent Electric Lamp", Kenneth R. Swan, Longmans, Green and Co., New York, 1946.
  8. "In the Days of My Youth, Some Random Reminiscences of My Early Years", Sir Kenneth R. Swan, University Press, Oxford, 1964, pp.2, 3, 7, 8, 14, 18-21, 26, 50, 113, 176.
  9. "Sir Joseph Wilson Swan F.R.S. - Inventor and Scientist", Mary E. Swan & Kenneth R. Swan, Oriel Press, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, 1968.
  10. "Swan's Way: Inventive Style and the Emergence of the Incandescent Lamp", G. Wise, Report No. 81CRD192, Aug 1981, Research and Development Applications Operation, General Electric Company, Schenectady, NY; material was also published in - Spectrum, Vol.19, Apr 1982, pp.66-70, titled "Swan's Way: A Study in Style."