Tale of Tragedy Behind the Triumphs of Joseph Swan

The Journal (Newcastle, England), September 28, 2011 | Go to article overview

Tale of Tragedy Behind the Triumphs of Joseph Swan


Byline: TONY HENDERSON

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. …

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