Reward offered for oldest working light bulb in a British home

30 January 2009

A search is launched today to discover the oldest light bulb still glowing strong in a British home.

The Royal Society of Chemistry is offering 500 to the owner of the longest-serving working veteran bulb.

The prize is to highlight the remarkable achievements of the overlooked Sunderland-born scientist who first demonstrated a light bulb publicly.

The RSC will, next Tuesday, commemorate the first demonstration of the light bulb "on stage" in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1879, when the great, but much-overlooked, polymath Joseph Swan disclosed that he had hit on a bright idea that was to change the way people lived.

The RSC has heard reports of households where ancient light bulbs were still functioning but is keen to pinpoint the longest performer. To that end it is offering the cash prize, but those submitting claims would need to authenticate them by third-party, written, support. The RSC would also reserve the right to scrutinise the candidate bulbs for markings and to check their health. 

The society will present one of its Chemical Landmark plaques at a ceremony on 3 February (6pm) at the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Literary and Philosophical Society, which was the venue for the first light bulb demonstration 130 years before, to the day.

In 1879 Joseph Swan began installing light bulbs in homes and landmarks across England. In 1880, he gave the world's first large-scale public exhibition of electric lamps in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In 1881 he had started his own company, The Swan Electric Light Company, and started commercial production. Later, Swan teamed up with American Thomas Edison for the commercial exploitation of the light bulb, using the trademark EdiSwan.

Thomas Edison is often the one credited with inventing the light bulb, but Swan and Edison both made similar advances at about the same time, though to begin with they were completely independent of each other. The company that Swan and Edison created was to spawn many offshoots including the giant industrial concern GE.

A man of relentless inquisitiveness and dedication, Swan also succeeded in inventing bromide paper which, until the arrival of digital photography, was the paper upon which photographic images were printed. 

Dr Ian Edwards, of the University of Newcastle, will be demonstrating at the event, employing a range of light sources, (and exhibiting a replica of the original bulb Swan used in 1879 together with a range of historic bulbs made by Swan around 1880). 

Dr Edwards said today: "Swan's remarkable range of achievements is recognised widely in the North-East of England but it's probably fair to say that otherwise he has been neglected. He was an individual of rare quality and commitment and left a tremendous legacy through lighting that transformed the lives of hundreds of millions around the world."

Swan was knighted in 1904.

By the time he died on 27 May, 1914, a notable proportion of the country was lit by electric light. His development of the material for filament led to the creation of man-made fibres and his idea of creating light in a vacuum eventually led to the invention of the cathode ray tube, and the television.

Professor Jim Feast, of Durham University and Immediate Past-President of the RSC, will present the Chemical Landmark award to the current President of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Literary and Philosophical Society, Mr Bill Bower, at the ceremony. Prof Feast said today:

"Swan and Edison independently followed similar routes to the first carbon filament lights. They divided the market and had one joint enterprise and the business was good for a relatively short period until the technology was superseded by tungsten filaments which were tougher and brighter and are now under attack as high energy consumers.

"Swan made his filaments by carbonizing cellulose and so did Edison. Swan used cotton as the starting polymer and Edison fibrillated bamboo. One could argue that Swan found the first application of conducting organic polymers and I did argue so when lecturing on the subject of conducting polymers. In Durham we had invented a precursor route to polyacetylene which was the paradigm for the area." 

Prof Feast added:  "The first houses and streets to be lit by electric light were in Gateshead and Mosley Street, Newcastle in the North-East and perhaps the most famous of these houses was Cragside, which was Lord Armstrong's country residence in the foothills of the Cheviots." 

  • There are 903.6 million bulbs in GB homes - of which 151.5 million are spares 
  • So active bulbs (including 106.7 million appliance bulbs e.g. microwaves etc.) are 752.1 million 
  • 602 million are indoors, an average of 23.98 per home  
  • 43.4 million are outdoors, an average of 1.73 per home These 2 averages add to 25.71  
  • The average household has 18.8 fittings inside the home      

(Statistics courtesy of the Lighting Association)


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