Sir Joseph Wilson Swan was born on October 31, 1828, in Sunderland, UK. When he turned 14, he started a pharmacy apprenticeship, which due to the death of his mentors he was unfortunately unable to finish. He then joined a chemical firm in Newcastle that was run by his brother-in-law, John Mawson. Initially starting as an assistant, he later became a partner in this firm.
Initially, he had success in the area of photography, revolutionizing this field and making photography more convenient. After recognizing that wet photographic plates had many associated issues, he worked at developing alternative processes and, in total, filed over 70 patents in the area of photography. One such patent, filed in 1871, was for the dry plate: On finding out that the sensitivity of the silver bromide emulsion was increased upon heating, he developed a method to dry the wet plates. Later he devised bromide paper, which is still commonly used today for black-and-white prints.
The invention of the incandescent light bulb, most commonly associated with Thomas Edison, was also acheived by Joseph Swan. Swan developed an electric light consisting of a filament of carbonized paper in an evacuated glass bulb. Although he had obtained a British patent on a partial vacuum, carbon filament incandescent lamp in 1860, it was not until 1879, by which time vacuum pumps had been improved, that he lit the first public building with his light bulb at a lecture in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK. By 1880, Swan had comercialized an improved version of his light bulb and in 1881, his incandescent light bulbs were used to light the Savoy Theatre, London, UK.
Edison’s name is more commonly associated with the invention of the incandescent light bulb, as he improved Swan’s bulb by using a better vacuum pump and a filament derived from bamboo. He created light bulbs that lasted up to 1200 hours. Swan’s light bulbs incorporated a carbonized paper filament and only worked for 13-and-a-half hours.
Swan became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1894 and was awarded the Royal Society’s Hughes Medal in 1904, the same year in which he received a knighthood.
Swan died May 27, 1914, at Warlingham, Surrey, UK.
- Joseph Swan is the answer to Guess the Chemist (29).
- Pioneers in the Optical Sciences: Joseph Swan (1828–1914),
Michael W. Davidson and The Florida State University,
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- Light and Likeness,
New Scientist October 26, 1978.