Joseph Swan Facts: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Kristen McNeely

Kristen has taught elementary students for five years and has a master's degree in teaching.

In this lesson, you'll learn about Joseph Swan, a chemist and an inventor. We'll explore his life, as well as the contributions he made to everyday life and science during the 1800s.

Joseph Swan

Have you ever wanted to invent something that would make your life easier? Maybe a robot that could take out the trash, or a bed that was able to make itself each morning? Inventions, or new, useful devices, are all around us. Everyday items, from the microwave to the television, were invented by someone at some point in time.

Joseph Swan (1828-1914) was a British inventor who had a desire to improve the world around him. If you've ever turned on a light or taken a photograph, you've used a form of Swan's inventions, perhaps without even realizing it!

Joesph Swan
Joseph Swan

Early Years

Joseph Swan was born in Sunderland, England, on October 31, 1828. As a child, he was very interested in the world around him. He was especially curious about how things worked. Swan enjoyed reading science books and attending academic lectures at the Sunderland Athenaeum (pronounced ath-uh-NEE-uhm), which was similar to what we might consider a library.


Much like you, Joseph Swan attended the local schools in his town. When he was just 14 years old, Swan became an apprentice at a pharmaceutical, or prescription drug company. An apprentice is someone who works closely with experts in a certain area, so he or she can learn about and train in the field. Swan later went on to work at a chemical company, where he continued to study science and experiment with different possible inventions.

Career Highlights

Incandescent Light Bulb

Joseph Swan is best known for his improvements to the early electric light bulb. Scientists had previously come up with a basic bulb that wasn't able to glow very long. However, Swan's incandescent light bulb contained a special wire and vacuum that could heat up to such a high temperature, it could glow and give off noticeable light for a longer period of time. It took Swan several years of experimenting to get the light bulb to a point where it could safely glow for hours; he introduced his invention to the public in 1878.

Carbon Printing & Photo Plates

While working at the chemical company, Swan experimented with ways to improve how photos were duplicated; his invention became known as the carbon printing process. This process made it easier to make copies of photos.

Early photographers used photographic plates, a type of glass that captured camera images. Joseph Swan created dry plates that were lighter in weight and thinner than the ones used earlier in a wet-plate process - a breakthrough that had an important impact on modern photography.

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