Start of main content

Archives Biographies: Sir James Swinburne BART FRS

Sir James Swinburne, BART., F.R.S., was born in Inverness in 1858 into a well-known Northumbrian family.

Educated at Clifton College, he went to work at a locomotive works in Manchester and later to a Tyneside firm where he became interested in electrical work.

He joined Swan's lamp works in Newcastle and helped start lamp factories in Paris and Boston, Massachusetts. On his return to England, he joined Hammond's lamp works and around 1885, the same year as he was elected a Member of The Institution of Electrical Engineers, he became technical assistant and later manager of Crompton's dynamo works.

It was during this period of his life that he invented a watt-hour meter and designed his 'hedgehog' transformer. He was also a frequent contributor to the Electrical Review and began to attend the meetings of the IEE, of which he was to become President 1902-3.

Science Abstracts

From 1898-1899 he was Honorary Editor of Science Abstracts, during which time he set up as a consulting engineer and also began to give technical evidence in the High Court.

Around 1902, he returned to the study of steam engineering and in 1903 read a paper before the British Association on an engineer's view of thermodynamics.

In 1904, his book Entropy was published and in 1906 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Swinburne's work with lacquer

In 1907, he applied for a patent on a modified synthetic resin which he had first encountered in its original form in 1902 on a visit to a patent agent's office, only to find that an American company had anticipated his patent by one day. After this, by tacit consent, the applications of the solid resin were produced in the US by Baekeland and the liquid lacquer was made in England. 

Swinburne became Chairman of Damard Lacquer Co., the company formed to develop the business whose headquarters moved to Birmingham. The company flourished and in 1926, Bakelite Ltd was formed with Swinburne as Chairman and H V Potter who started the research department, as Managing Director. During this period, Swinburne presented papers to the Faraday Society and was elected President of that Society from 1909 to 1911.

In 1934, Swinburne succeeded his cousin as ninth baronet and in 1948 became Honorary President of Bakelite Ltd.

Later life

Sir James continued to widen his interests by taking up horology at the age of 90. On his 100th birthday, the Council sent a letter of congratulation to him. There were tributes to him from the Royal Society and in the national and technical Press. The New Scientist published a long Profile of him - the first time the Series had included anyone of his generation.

He died on 30 March 1958, a month after celebrating his 100th birthday.

Sir James' period of corporate membership - 73 years - has never been equalled.