Sir Joseph Swan – A Light that Never Goes Out – June 2014

Sir Joseph Swan's, Hughes Medal (left) and Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur (right).
Sir Joseph Swan’s, Hughes Medal (left) and Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur (right).

27 May 2014 marked the centenary of the death of Sir Joseph Wilson Swan (31 October 1828 – 27 May 1914), Sunderland-born scientist, pioneer, and inventor of early electric light bulbs, photographic processes, and synthetic fibres.

Swan was very much a local man working on Grey Street Newcastle for a firm of manufacturing chemists Mawson, Swan and Morgan, and going on to live at Low Fell in Gateshead. It was here, in a large conservatory, that Swan conducted many of the experiments that led to his creation of the first partial vacuum, carbon filament incandescent light bulb in 1850.

Unsatisfied with the lamps short lifespan and inefficiency, Swan continued to work on his invention until he finally presented it to the public on 3 February 1879 when over seven hundred people viewed it in action at the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle. This time, the lamp used a carbonized thread and a better vacuum, but Swan improved on it again with ‘parchmentised thread’ before he began to install his invention in homes across England. His own house was the world’s first to have electric lighting installed.

By 1881, the Savoy Theatre in London (the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electric light) and both the House of Commons and the British Museum were illuminated using Swan bulbs. In 1883, Swan went into business with Thomas Edison, famed for similar but independent developments in electric lighting, to form Edison and Swan United Electric, producing lights commercially.

Having exhibited the electric light bulb in Paris in 1881, Swan was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, the highest decoration in France. In 1904, he became only the third person to receive the Royal Society’s Hughes Medal. He was also honoured locally with the Freedom of the City of Newcastle upon Tyne, only a few months before his death in 1914.

These original honours (pictured above), donated by his descendants, are now on permanent display in the Special Collections Reading Room on level 1 of the Philip Robinson Library.

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