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British Industrial History

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James Swinburne

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Sir James Swinburne (1858-1958), M.Inst.C.E., F.R.S., of Bakelite, electrical and railway engineer.

1858 born son of Capt. T. A. Swinburne, R.N.

Educated at Clifton College

Apprenticed at Engineering Works on the Tyne

Draughtsman in the S. Shields Gasworks

With Sir Joseph Swan to erect Glow Lamp Factories in Paris, and Boston, U.S.A.

1884 Manager to Hammond Co.'s Lamp Factory

1886 Technical Manager and Designer to Crompton and Co.

By 1889 had established his own business at Teddington, Swinburne and Co[1]

1892 Presented a paper to Inst Civil Engineers on "Electrical Measuring Instruments"[2]

1894 Started to practise as a Consulting engineer - see Swinburne and Co

Mr. Swinburne started Science Abstracts, and was editor at first.

1895 G. H. Baillie and William Ranson Cooper joined Swinburne as assistants, becoming partners soon after.[3]

Also at various times:

  • President J.Inst.E.

1958 Obituary [4]

SIR JAMES SWINBURNE, whose death occurred at Bournemouth, on Sunday last, March 30, was a distinguished electrical engineer who had recently celebrated his one hundredth birthday. Until 1948 Sir James was chairman of Bakelite Ltd. and upon his retirement from that office he was appointed the company's first honorary president.

Sir James, who was born at Inverness in February, 1858, was educated at Clifton College, and served an engineering apprenticeship in the Gorton locomotive works Manchester. Subsequently, he spent sometime with a Tyneside engineering firm and later worked with Swann in the manufacture of incandescent lamps.

Sir James was responsible, during this stage of his career for establishing lamp factories in Paris and Boston. Shortly afterwards he met the late Colonel Crompton and worked with him for three years or so on dynamo development and manufacture.

At about this time it has been recorded, Sir James was called as an expert witness during. a patent case involving electric lamps. His manner of giving evidence obviously created a favourable impression, with the result that he was frequently in demand as an expert witness in various kinds of litigation. These commissions in fact provided his principal source of income, and were of great value to him in his career because they enabled him to acquire a vast miscellany of technical knowledge.

Sir James Swinburne's long association with the plastics industry began in 1904. At that time he was practising as a consulting engineer in London. One day he was shown a piece of synthetic resin made by an Austrian chemist named Luft; this resin had been made by reacting phenol with formaldehyde and was handed to Swinburne as an interesting but useless novelty. However, although Swinburne realised that in its then existing state the resin was indeed useless, he eventually came to the conclusion that Luft's process could be made to yield a useful material.

He decided to investigate the possibilities and in order to do this he established a laboratory in London. After two years of research Swinburne found that he could produce phenol formaldehyde resin using sodium hydroxide as a catalyst, but he delayed applying for a patent on the process in the hope that he would discover a better method.

When he eventually went to the Patent Office to register his process, he found that he had been anticipated by one day. Dr. L. H. Baekeland, a Belgian chemist working in the U.S.A., had just patented a similar process. Undeterred, Swinburne continued his work in England and within a short time he produced a resin which set hard and clear and which made a lacquer suitable for the protection of brass and other metal surfaces. This lacquer was named "Damard," and in 1910 the Damard Lacquer Company began operations in B1rmmgham. Shortly after the first world war, this company combined with two others to form Bakelite, Ltd., with Sir James as chairman.

During his long life, Sir James Swinburne had a variety of interests in addition to his many scientific activities; they included horology, sociology and music. Actually, his close study of horology did not begin until he was nearly ninety. It resulted however, in the writing of a book on watch mechanisms. Sir James was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a past-president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and a past-president of the Faraday Society.

1958 Obituary [5]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Proposal for John Francis Russell to join the IEE
  2. The Engineer 1892/04/29
  3. Obituary of William Cooper]]
  4. The Engineer 1958/04/04
  5. 1958 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries