Sir Joseph Wilson Swan - Inventor Of The Incandescent Light Bulb
Born in what is now known as Sunderland (previously called Bishopwearmouth) in 1828, Joseph Swan was an apprentice to a pharmacist. Proving himself in the industry Swan later became a partner in a firm of manufactring chemists called Mawson's, which existed as Mawson, Swan and Morgan until as recently as 1973.
Swan's work on electric lighting began in 1850. His initial designs involved using a carbonised paper filament contained within an evacuated glass bulb. 10 years later he was able to demonstrate a working model and was given a British patent that covered a carbon filament, partial vacuum incandescent bulb. Unfortunately the quality of the vacuum and electric supply was not sufficient to create an effective bulb for general use.
Swan revisited his ideas for an incandescent light bulb 15 years later. This time Swan used a carbonised thread as a filament and was able to create a better vacuum with little residual oxygen. This meant that the filament was able to burn white-hot, without cathing fire. However, the poor resistance of the filament meant Swan had to use heavy copper wires to supply the electricity.
Swan was given a British patent for this new improved design in 1878, approximately a year before Edison got his. In 1979 Swan demonstrated a working incandescent light bulb during a lecture at the Newcastle Chemical Society. In that same year Swan began to instal his light bulbs in homes and landmarks around England. In fact his own house in Gateshead was the very first in the whole world to have working light bulbs installed. Two years later Swan started The Swan Electric Light Company and began commercial production of incadescent light bulbs.
Meanwhile, in America, Thomas Edison had been working on a more efficient version of the light bulb based largely on an 1875 patent he bought from Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans and the patents of Joseph Swan. Edison was granted an American patent for an incandescent light bulb in 1879 that was a fairly direct copy of Swan's bulb. Swan took Edison to court over patent infringement and won, but not being so interested in making money from the invention, agreed to let Edison sell the light in America while he kept the rights in Britain and Edison was forced to take Swan in as a partner in his British electric works.
In 1881 Swan came up with an improved filament that was made by squirting collodion (solution of nitro-cellulose in a mixture of alcohol and ether) into a coagulating solution and carbonising the resulting threads.
1883 saw the establishment of the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company also known as Ediswan. Ediswan started to sell lamps using this new filament and it became the industry standard, except with Edinson's own company, The Edison General Electric Company, which coninued to use a filament of bamboo that Edison had previously invented. In 1892 the Edison General Electric Company merged with Thomson-Houston Electric Company to form what is now known as General Electric. From this point GE started to use Swan's cellulose based filament.
Swan went on to work on apparatus for measuring electric currents, the improvement of accumulators and conditions governing the electro-deposition of metals. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1894, served as president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1898-1899 and of the Society of Chemical Industry in 1901 and in that year received and honorary degree from Durham University. In 1904 Swan was knighted and in 1914 he passed away.