Chemist Joseph Wilson Swan was born in Sunderland, England on October 31, 1828, the fourth son of John and Isabella Cameron Swan. He was received his early education at Reverend John Wood’s private school before becoming an apprentice for Sunderland druggists Hudson and Osbaldiston. After successfully completing his apprenticeship, he joined John Mawson's chemical manufacturing firm in Newcastle-on-Tyne. He would later become Mr. Mawson's partner as well as his brother-in-law.
The Newcastle company manufactured photographic plates, which prompted Mr. J.W. Swan to experiment with dry plate production, a carbon process he dubbed the "autotype." He received a patent for his carbon printing process in 1864, which was based upon his discovery that when gelatine is exposed to light after being introduced to bichromatic salt does not absorb water. Mr. Swan was undoubtedly familiar with William Henry Fox Talbot"s discovery a decade earlier that when exposed to light, the mixture of potassium bichromate and gelatine becomes insoluble in water. The problem with this, however, was that a layer of the insoluble gelatine would form over the entire surface. Mr. Swan floated the exposed print on a rubber solution, and the paper was similarly treated. After drying both, the exposed print surface was pressed against the rubber-coated paper and developed in hot water, where the paper would be released and the water could then make contact with the gelatine coating on the back. Mr. Swan's studies eventually led to the discovery of print preparation without bichromate. He also experimented with tone processing, similar to the techniques being developed by inventor and international travel photographer Walter B. Woodbury. Although the process of carbon printing has been simplified considerably over the years, the basic method Mr. Swan devised is still being employed to reproduce photographs today.
After John Mawson died from injuries received in a nitroglycerine explosion in 1867, Mr. Swan entered into a successful partnership with George Weddell. The business expanded to include pharmaceutical products, but he continued his dry plate experimentation. In the 1870s, Mr. Swan also resumed working on developing an incandescent electric lamp, which had begun back in 1860. Young American inventor Thomas Edison was also working on such a lamp, and quite impressed with the carbon-filament glow lamp Mr. Swan exhibited in 1879. For his efforts, Mr. Swan was referred to among electrical engineers as “the father of the profession.” The Swan Electric Light Company, the first electric lamp manufacturer in Europe, opened in Newcastle in 1881, and upon its incorporation with the Edison Company in London, it became known as the Edison and Swan United Electric Company.
Mr. Swan received many honors in his lifetime for his achievements, including being elected as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1894. He was also president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers from 1898 to 1899 and president of the Society of Chemical Industry in 1901. In addition, he was Vice-President of the Royal Photographic Society, and a Fellow of the Institute of Chemistry. He was knighted in 1904. Sir Joseph Wilson Swan died at his home in Surrey on May 27, 1914 at the age of 85, leaving behind an unparalleled legacy of accomplishments in the fields of photography and electrical engineering.
1914 The Inland Printer/American Lithographer, Vol. LIII (New York: Sigmund Ullman Co.), p. 601.
1914 Practical Druggist and Pharmaceutical Review of Reviews, Vol. XXXII, No. 7 (New York: Lehn & Fink), p. 314.
1914 Wilson's Photographic Magazine, Vol. LI (New York: Edward L. Wilson Company, Inc.), pp. 344-345.
1984 British Journal of Photography, Vol. CXXXI (London: Henry Greenwood & Co. Ltd.), p. 656.
1898 The Electrician, Vol. XL (London: George Tucker), pp. 385-386.
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