A wry view of life for the world-weary

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Fifty


Joseph Swan (1828 – 1914)

The latest inductee to our illustrious Hall of Fame is a man who didn’t receive the fame and riches that his inventiveness deserved. Step forward Joseph Swan.

Born near Sunderland Swan exhibited an enquiring mind as a child and improved himself as was the fashion in those days by attending lectures at the Sunderland Athenaeum and became a partner at  firm of manufacturing chemists owned by his brother-in-law, John Mawson. By the 1850s Swan began experimenting with carbon filaments in an attempt to develop an electric light bulb. But his endeavours came to naught as the vacuum pumps available at the time were unable to remove enough air from the lamps to make them work.

Improvements in the technology of vacuum pumps encouraged Swan to have another go around 1875, using carbonised paper filaments in an evacuated glass bulb. As there was little residual oxygen in the vacuum tube to ignite the filament it glowed with almost white-hot intensity without catching fire. The problem, though, was that the bulb needed heavy copper wires to supply the filament which had low resistance.

By late 1878 Swan was sufficiently encouraged to report his success to the Newcastle Chemical Society and on February 3rd 1879 demonstrated his working lamp to an audience of over 700 people. Swan then sought to improve the carbon filaments and the means of attaching its ends by devising a means of treating cotton to produce what was called “parchmentised thread”. He applied for and secured a British patent. Swan’s house, Underhill, in Kells Lane near Gateshead was the first in the world to be fitted with an electric light and the Lit & Phil library in Newcastle was the first public room to be so lit. In 1881 Swan established the Swan Electrical Company and began commercial operations.

The problem with Swan’s bulb, though, was that the gasses trapped in the rod when the light was activated were released and caused a dark deposit of soot to build up on the inner surface of the bulb. This meant that they had a relatively short life and were largely impractical. Across the pond and independently of Swan, Thomas Edison, was working on his variant of a light bulb which improved the life of the bulb by deploying very thin filaments with high electrical resistance. Because of the high resistance they only needed a relatively small current to glow – his Bristol-board lamps produced in late 1879 lasted about 150 hours and the bamboo lamps of 1880 glowed for 600 hours.

Though Swan had invented his bulb some months before Edison, Edison was more aggressive in asserting rights and secured patents in America for what were pretty direct copies of Swan’s bulb. Swan resisted a patent challenge in the courts from another lamp maker over and Edison decided to work with Swan rather than against him and the two agreed to co-operate, creating the Edison & Swan Electric Light company in 1883. Edison, however, retained the patent rights in the States, a much more lucrative market, and whilst the company sold bulbs with a cellulose filament that Swan had invented in 1883 Edison’s own company continued with bamboo filaments until the creation of the General Electric Company in 1892 when cellulose became the standard.

Swan was not as commercially minded or aggressive as his American rival and partner and so his achievements were over shadowed. But Swan did receive a knighthood in 1904, was awarded the Royal Society’s Hughes medal and received the French Legion d’honneur. Small reward indeed for the true inventor of the light bulb.

For that, Joseph Swan, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link


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