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Sir Joseph Wilson Swan



Sir Joseph Wilson Swan (October 31, 1828 - May 27, 1914) was an English physicist and chemist, most famous for the development of the light bulb.

Swan was born on October 31, 1828, at Pallion Hall in Bishopwearmouth (now Sunderland), and he served an apprenticeship with a pharmacist there. He later became a partner in Mawson's, a firm of manufacturing chemists in Newcastle. This company existed as Mawson Swan and Morgan until recently.

In 1850 he began working on a light bulb using carbonized paper filaments in an evacuated glass bulb. By 1860 he was able to demonstrate a working device, and obtained a UK patent covering a partial vacuum, carbon filament incandescent lamp. However, the lack of good vacuum and an adequate electric source resulted in a short lifetime for
the bulb and an inefficient light.

Fifteen years later, in 1875, Swan returned to consider the problem of the light bulb with the aid of a better vacuum and a carbonized thread as a filament. The most significant feature of Swan's lamp was that there was little residual oxygen in the vacuum tube to ignite the filament, thus allowing the filament to glow almost white-hot without catching fire. However, his filament was low resistance, thus needing heavy copper wires to supply it.

Swan received a British patent for his device in 1878, about a year before Thomas Edison. Swan had reported success to the Newcastle Chemical Society and at a lecture in Newcastle in February 1879 he demonstrated a working lamp. Starting that year he began installing light bulbs in homes and landmarks in England. In 1880, Swan gave the world's first large-scale public exhibition of electric lamps at Newcastle. In 1881 he had started his own company, The Swan Electric Light Company, and started commercial production.

In 1883 the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company was established. Known commonly as "Ediswan" the company sold lamps made with a cellulose filament that Swan had invented in 1881. Variations of the cellulose filament became an industry standard, except with the Edison Company. Edison continued using bamboo filaments until the 1892 merger that created General Electric -- and that company then shifted to cellulose.

When working with wet photographic plates, he noticed that heat increased the sensitivity of the silver bromide emulsion. By 1871 he had devised a method of drying the wet plates, initiating the age of convenience in photography. Eight years later he patented bromide paper, developments of which are still used for black and white photographic prints.

Three years later, while searching for a better carbon filament for his light bulb, Swan patented a process for squeezing nitro-cellulose through holes to form fibres. The textile industry has used his process.

Swan was knighted in 1904. He died on May 27, 1914, in Warlingham, Surrey.


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