Show illuminates Bromley’s very own bright spark

PUBLISHED: 14:36 30 September 2010

Sir Joseph Swan ©The Royal Society

Sir Joseph Swan ©The Royal Society

©The Royal Society

Most people think that American inventor Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but an exhibition is set to show that the real breakthrough came much closer to home.


The display at Bromley’s central Library from next Thursday will tell the amazing story of the Victorian scientist Joseph Swan, who refined his incandescent lightbulb at his home and laboratory in London Road, Bromley, between 1883 and 1894.

The exhibition will show how Mr Swan created domestic lightbulbs using carbonised fibres as filaments before his contemporary Thomas Edison, before working together with him to mass-market electric lighting.

The project, which is part of London mayor Boris Johnson’s Story of London festival, will culminate in a talk from Dr Ian Edwards, a retired physical chemist at Newcastle University.

Dr Edwards said: “For over 100 years Swan’s work was crucial as he lit ordinary homes with electricity.”

Although most people instantly think of Thomas Edison when asked about the light bulb, Joseph Swan was working on carbonised filaments at the same time, if not before his American peer.

Dr Edwards continued: “A lot of people were working on electricity at the time but it was Jospeh Swan who made it a practical possibility.

“But, Swan was less flamboyant than Edison, who was a more dominant businessman.”

The academic says that it was down to a complication with patents after the two inventors teamed up that led to Edison being widely credited with inventing the lightbulb.

Born in Sunderland, Sir Joseph Swan moved with his family to his home Lauriston on London Road, Bromley, in 1883. Because there was no room in the house for his laboratory, he soon bought the house next door, Sunnyside, and it was here that he refined his electric light bulb and other important scientific breakthroughs.

A book written by his son Kenneth and daughter Mary describes living in Bromley as a joyous time in the family’s life.

Sir Joseph opened a kindergarten for his younger children and their friends above his laboratory in Sunnyside, and turned the house’s tennis court into an ice rink for the children that was lit up at night.

A passage in the book says: 
“Swan liked nothing better than a 
holiday drive, with a carriage full of children, over the neighbouring 
commons of Hayes, Keston, Chislehurst and the Crays.”

During his time in Bromley, the scientist and inventor made breakthroughs in a number of areas, such as creating artificial silks, developing early storage batteries and “dry-plate” photography.

Sir Joseph and his family moved from Lauriston to a new home in Holland Park, London, in 1894 as the inventor enjoyed more and more success in his partnership with Mr Edison.

The exhibition at Bromley central library runs from October 7-13. The event at Bromley United Services Club, London Road, on October 8, will start at 6.45pm and free tickets can be reserved from the libraries service on 0208 461 7170.

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