17th January 1879. New Lamps For Old.

A Punch Magazine cartoon captured the new age of lighting by electricity in showing Mr Punch holding a [Joseph] Swan Lamp offering ‘new lamps for old’.

The cartoon referred to the new incandescent light bulb demonstrated in a lecture Today in 1879 in Sunderland, by Joseph Wilson Swan.(1)

Significantly the filament was held inside a vacuum-sealed bulb and didn’t burn out as quickly as the carbon-rod lamps of the 1860s which were exposed to the air and thus oxidized quickly.

Incandescent light had a filament heated to a white-heat causing the lamp to glow. The filament was protected by a glass bulb using either inert gas or a vacuum.

In 1880 Swan’s Gateshead house was the first in the world to be illuminated with these bulbs. (2)

It was on the 18th December 1878 that Swan had first publicly demonstrated his new incandescent light before the Newcastle Chemical Society, but it broke down owing to excessive current.


However after his success the following January, the first street to be lit with the new lamp, was Mosley Street in Newcastle on 3rd February 1879. In December 1880 the first private house, after Swan’s to be lit by the new lighting was his friend Sir William Armstrong’s at Craigside.

Swan now went on to found in 1881, the Swan Electric Lighting Company at Benwell near Newcastle-on-Tyne, the first company to make incandescent electric light bulbs.

It was the versatile Humphry Davy who had shown in early experiments, the potential for electric lighting, when he demonstrated that a current arcing across a gap between two carbon rods produced both heat and light.

This method was to be used in the first permanent electric street lighting on London’s Victoria Embankment, on the 13th December 1878, being steam-powered by a Gramme dynamo. The following year similar lamps gave the first illumination to Blackpool’s promenade.

Norwich lit its town centre with 18 carbon arc-lights, to be replaced later with 50 new Swan incandescent lamps in January 1881. The future was now with Swan.

However it was to be the next century before electric lighting finally replaced gas, and nine years after the Electricity Supply Act set up the National Grid in 1926, the supply got as far as Witheridge, Devon which now had 100 Watts at a shilling a week. However it was some time before many a countryman overcame a fear and suspicion of this ‘new-fangled electricity’.(3)

(1) The experiment was replicated on 3.2.1879 before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle.

Early filaments were made from Osmium, later Tungsten which by having the highest melting point of a metal, was seen to be more stable. Tungsten (W) from Wulframite ‘devourer of tin’ (AN 74); ‘heavy stone’ in Swedish, is a Transition Metal.

(2) 19, Kells Lane, Low Fell, Gateshead

(3) The company responsible for supply was the Exe Valley Electric Company, an off-shoot of Whitehall Securities of London. Later it became The West of England Electric Company Ltd., prior to the nationalisation of the 1940s.

Ref: Catalogue Pic: theiet.org/images. swan cat.

Ref: Tyne and Wear Archives. Google Images for Pic on experiment.

Ref: Wikipedia Street lighting.

Ref: Witheridge-history-archives-com.

Ref: bbc.co.uk Secret Life of the National Grid, Gaby Hornsby.26.10.2010.



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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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