Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison

One of the Archives online exhibitions exploring popular topics in the history of science, engineering and technology. All the images are scans from originals held in the IET Archives.  

Joseph Swan experimented with incandescent lamps but lacked an adequate vacuum pump. He heard about a newly invented air pump known as a Sprengel pump and applied this to his experiments.

Portrait of Sir Joseph Swan signed very truly yours Joseph W. Swan
Portrait of Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Edison turned his attentions to electric lighting towards the end of 1877. He believed that commercially successful lighting needed to have similar characteristics to the existing gas lighting. His early experiments using carbonized paper and carbon were failures. The lamp usually cited as his first success was made on 19th October 1879 but the carbonized cotton used as the conductor was still very fragile. He later found that a particular type of Japanese bamboo was the most satisfactory.

In 1882 it seemed the obvious choice to merge their British companies and join forces in developing the electric filament light. The Edison and Swan United Electric Light Company Ltd was formed on 26th October 1883.

Swan catalogue from 1883
Drawing of an early filament lightbulb

The Swan catalogue above is from 1883. It illustrates the number and types of lamps available. The catalogue lists more than 100 houses and other buildings and 25 ships all lit by Swan's lamps. On the right is a drawing of an early light bulb or incandescent bulb, showing the filament inside.

Back to Early Developments in electric lighting

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