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Archives Biographies: Joseph Swan

Sir Joseph Swan was a pioneer of the electric lighting industry, photographic processes, and a President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

Swan was born 31 October 1828 in Sunderland. He was apprenticed to a pharmacist but soon entered into a business partnership with his friend John Mawson, who owned a chemists’ manufacturing firm. During this time, Swan developed two interests; electric light and photography. Mawson encouraged Swan to pursue his interests and introduced him to local chemical manufacturers. Together they developed ‘Mawson’s Collodion’, a chemical used in wet-plate photography, which grew to be very popular. Swan also worked to develop the dry-plate photo-chemical process. 

Swan is best known in the photography and printing industry for his development of carbon printing techniques. In 1864, Swan patented the process, later selling the rights to various companies around the world. In the 1880s carbon tissue, also known as pigment paper, was first used as the method of transferring an image to a copper plate for what became known as the photogravure process.  It is the gelatine relief image which acts as an acid resist enabling the image to be etched into the copper plate. The process is also the basis of rotary photogravure used in high-quality commercial printing.

Swan’s interest in electric light dated back to the 1840s, when he visited the Sunderland Library to read about an experimental lamp developed by J W Starr, and attended lectures delivered by W E Staite and William Petrie on an early arc lamp. In 1850 Swan undertook some experiments of his own and succeeded in making carbon filaments for a lamp made out of carbonised strips of paper. 

In 1860 he mounted these in a glass bulb with most of the air pumped out. When an electrical current was passed through the filament, a brief electrical incandescence was achieved before the insides of the glass blackened. Swan recognised that this was due to the lack of a vacuum, but he was not able to improve upon this until 1875 when he used the newly invented Sprengel air pump.

In January 1879 Swan demonstrated some of his incandescent lamps in Newcastle, and in November 1880 he applied for a patent on his newly improved filaments. Around the same time Sir William Armstrong, a Tyneside industrialist, fitted out his entire house, ‘Cragside’, with Swan incandescent lamps, powered by a local generator.

In 1881, Swan founded his own company, the Swan Electric Light Company, and started commercial production. Around the same time, Thomas Edison in the US had founded his own commercial incandescent manufacturing firm, the Edison Electric Light Company, and the two firms began to compete with one another. 

Unfortunately, Swan had not sought a patent covering his lamp in general terms as he thought it was a combination of well-known ideas, whereas Edison had. After a short period of legal wrangling, it was agreed to merge the two British companies and so the Edison and Swan United Electric Light Company Ltd (commonly known as ‘Ediswan’) was formed on 26 October 1883. The company became part of British Thomson-Houston and Associated Electrical Industries in the 1920s.

Swan became a member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1881 and was President from 1898-1899. He was appointed an Honorary Member in 1900. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1894 and in 1904 he received his knighthood. He died in 1914 in Warlingham, Surrey.