Updated 14-XII-2013


The first lamps of Sir Joseph Swan were produced jointly between his own laboratory in Low Fell where the filaments were prepared and carbonised, and then sent to the Birkenhead laboratory of the skilled vacuum engineer, Charles Henry Stearn, to be sealed into evacuated glass bulbs. Birkenhead therefore became the first site in the world where successful incandescent lamps were manufactured, however due to the very rapid pace of change as well as the small quantities produced, it would be appropriate to define this as more of a laboratory environment than a dedicated factory.

Records of this early operation are sparse, but indicate that Stearn fitted up the house next door to his own in Birkenhead as a dedicated factory about 1879. The accuracy of this date must be questioned since it preceeds even Swan's first public demonstration of his electric light on 20th October 1880 at the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society, and until that moment there can of course have been no lamp production on an industrial scale. It is therefore felt that by 'factory' these early sources in fact mean a 'development laboratory', and it could well be that this was established as early as 1879 with commercial manufacturing starting within a few months of Swan's lecture.

For this task, Stearn left his employee Fred Topham in charge of the operations, a highly skilled young glassblower and indeed the only person whose manual dexterity was sufficiently high to manipulate the delicate filaments into the glass bulbs without breakage. It is not clear whether Topham was the only employee engaged in lampmaking, or if he relied on assistance from other staff.

By 1881 demand began to escalate rapidly such that Swan required a larger factory, and the Benwell works was opened. There are also sparse records which suggest that another factory may have existed between Birkenhead and Benwell, situated at Gateshead. Fred Topham is said to have remained in the employment of this site which was later retained as a development workshop. It is not clear whether this was in fact the home of lampmaking after Birkenhead, which was perhaps later outgrown and relocated to Benwell with development remaining at Gateshead, or if it was established from the outset as a laboratory.

No records have been found concerning the eventual closure of Birkenhead. However it can be fairly certain that soon after the 1881 construction of the dedicated new lampworks in Benwell and the existence of new laboratory facilities in Gateshead, that the role of Birkenhead would have disappeared and let to its closure in the same year.

Address Unknown, Birkenhead, United Kingdom
Location Unknown
Opened 1879/1880
Closed 1881?
Products Carbon filament lamps

1 J W Swan and the Invention of the Incandescent Electric Lamp, C N Brown, The London Science Museum, 1978, pp.35, 41-42.