Tale of tragedy behind the triumphs of Joseph Swan

THE history and school text books tell how North East inventor Joseph Swan radically changed the way people lived.

THE history and school text books tell how North East inventor Joseph Swan radically changed the way people lived.

Swan’s years of work on perfecting the incandescent light bulb replaced the candle, oil and gas lamps, with their flickering light and fumes.

But Swan didn’t just invent. He had a private life and with the triumphs also came tragedy.

And a new project has looked beyond the scientific achievements to the man behind them.

But first the achievements. We now take electric light at the flick of a switch for granted.

So it is difficult to imagine the sensation which must have been created in 1880 at the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle when Swan demonstrated his light bulb to an audience.

Swan had 70 gas jets turned down and replaced them with the calm and constant light of his bulbs. The Lit and Phil became the first public building in the world to be lit in this way.

The chairman of the event, fellow-inventor William Armstrong, was so impressed he installed Swan’s bulbs in his mansion at Cragside in Northumberland.

Swan’s home, Underhill at Kells Lane in Low Fell, Gateshead, was the first private home to be lit by incandescent bulbs.

The listed building became Beaconsfield private school and is now a residential home, with a Gateshead Council commemorative plaque on its wall.

Swan also patented bromide paper, which underpinned the development of modern photography.

But when Swan’s wife Francis died, he was left with three small children.

The loss came shortly after his friend, brother-in-law and business partner John Mawson died in a blast on Newcastle Town Moor as he tried to safely dispose of nitroglycerine explosive which had been found in a cellar off the Cloth Market.

Swan later married Hannah, his wife’s sister, and they had five children.

The union at the time was illegal in Britain and the couple had to travel to Switzerland to marry.

Now a new book which weds science with storytelling to bring to life the individuals behind the great advances, features Joseph Swan.

Litmus: Short Stories From Modern Science, published by Comma Press, teams writers with scientific partners to cast new light on their subjects.

Sean O’Brien, Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University, worked with John Clayson, Keeper of Science and Industry at Tyne Wear Archives and Museums, with Swan as their choice.

Sean wrote his short story from Swan’s viewpoint, while John added a piece on the scientific background.

There was plenty to go at.

Swan, who was born in 1828 in Sunderland and served an apprenticeship with a local pharmacist, moved to Tyneside around 1845 to join John Mawson, who had a chemist’s shop and chemical works in Newcastle.

Swan started work on the concept of a light bulb about 1850 and spent years overcoming setbacks. He received his first patent in 1878 and by 1881 the Savoy Theatre in London was lit by 1,200 of his bulbs. Swan was knighted in 1904. John Clayson says: “The idea behind the book was to get under the skin of the person. This was a time of innovation and invention on Tyneside.”

In the audience at Swan’s 1880 demonstration was Tynesider John Henry Holmes, who went on to invent the quick break light switch.

“Holmes was inspired by the potential of electricity and his invention became the basis of every electric light switch,” says John.

“Swan overcame a number of setbacks in his work and personal life.

“It was an amazing vision in the early years of an incandescent light bulb, decades before people had any sense of electrical power in homes.”

Sean says: “The book brings together science and fiction, but not necessarily making science fiction. It was a very interesting project and Swan was rich material.”

One of Sean’s sources was a 1920s biography of Swan by two of his children.

“You get a portrait of a very well rounded, self-educated man who was also committed to literature,” says Sean. “He was a very imaginative man in all senses and a figure of enormous importance and regional pride. His life was almost like the material for a 19th Century novel.

“There was the determination to finally produce the light bulb he needed. Imagine being without it.”

In Sean’s story, on the loss of John Mawson and Frances, Swan talks about “when our sustaining beliefs and the optimism by which I myself had always personally been marked fall away, as into a void without form or meaning. This was my state for a year or more after these bereavements.”

Although Swan’s bulb is only now being replaced by light emitting diodes and energy-saving lamps, his name lives on in the Sir Joseph Swan Institute for Energy Research at Newcastle University.


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