James Swinburne Biography (1858-1958)


During his lifetime, Sir James Swinburne was granted more than one hundred patents, mostly related to electricity and lighting. Born into a titled seafaring family in Scotland, Swinburne started out as an apprentice engineer at a locomotive factory in England. In 1880, he was sent by Sir Joseph Swan to setup electric lamp factories in France and America.

Swinburne's next job was with Crompton & Co., a British manufacturer of dynamos, machines that generate direct-current electric power. By improving dynamo design, Swinburne helped spur the growth of the electric lighting industry. Previously, electricity was supplied mainly by batteries, which were relatively expensive to operate. Dynamos provided a cheaper source of power thatcould be widely distributed. Swinburne also invented many significant improvements to the incandescent light bulb.

In 1899, Swinburne established his own engineering consulting firm in London,complete with laboratory and workshop, and his ingenuity and dexterity madehim a success. Swinburne worked to patent an important new plastic made by mixing phenol and formaldehyde. The dark, resinous product had first been formed some thirty years earlier by German chemist Adolf von Bayer. But Swinburne,who was attempting to find a better material for electric cable insulation,realized that the resin's properties could be commercially useful. When the liquid sludge was heated, it could be molded and solidified into a permanent shape (thermoset); once hardened, liquid sludge was resistant to water,heat, and solvents, and could not conduct electricity. Swinburne considerably improved the method of preparing the resin, using a catalyst to accelerateproduction. But unknown to him, a chemist working independently in America, Belgian-born Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863-1944), also recognized the resin's value. He patented the material in 1907, one day earlier than Swinburne, and named it bakelite. Thus began the modern plastics industry.

Bakelite production grew by leaps and bounds along with the automotive and electrical equipment industries, since the plastic was ideal for making small switches and other components. Meanwhile, Swinburne went on to develop a related material, a synthetic lacquer that he named "damard." After World War I, Swinburne and Baekeland agreed to merge their businesses into Bakelite Ltd., which eventually became part of Union Carbide Corp. Swinburne remained Bakelite's chairman until 1948. Swinburne's industrial career was exceptionally long-lived. He held a record seventy-three year membership in the Institution ofElectrical Engineers. In addition, he was also a gifted composer who set someof Alfred Lord Tennyson's poetry to music.

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