The Discovery Museum in Newcastle-upon-Tyne

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

The Discovery Museum is just to the west of the Central train station and concentrates on the maritime history of Newcastle and Tyneside. This is a free museum with a tank outside the entrance, although this latter fact might only be whilst some maintenance is taking place.

In the Science Maze section, I was impressed by the story of Joseph Swan and his invention of the incandescent light bulb. In 1850, Swan began working on a light bulb using carbonised paper filaments. By 1860, he was able to demonstrate a working device, and obtained a British patent covering a partial vacuum, carbon filament incandescent lamp. However, the lack of a good vacuum and an adequate electric source resulted in an inefficient light bulb with a short lifetime. Fifteen years later, Swan returned to consider the problem of the light bulb with the aid of a better vacuum and a carbonised thread as a filament rather than carbonised paper. The most significant feature of Swan’s improved lamp was that there was little residual oxygen in the vacuum tube to ignite the filament, so the filament glowed almost white-hot without catching fire.

On 3 February 1879, he publicly demonstrated a working lamp to an audience of over seven hundred people in the lecture theatre of the Literary and Philosophical (Lit & Phil) Society of Newcastle upon Tyne. Swan turned his attention to producing a better carbon filament, and the means of attaching its ends. He devised a method of treating cotton to produce ‘parchmentised thread’, and obtained a patent in late 1880.

From that time he began installing light bulbs in homes and landmarks in England. His own house in Gateshead and the house of his friend and supporter William Armstrong were the first to be lit by light bulbs. At that time, each bulb was individually made by hand and cost 35 shillings, the equivalent of over £130 at today’s prices. The library at the Lit & Phil Library in Newcastle was the first public room lit by electric light during a lecture by Swan on 20 October 1880. In 1881, Joseph Swan founded his own company, The Swan Electric Light Company and started commercial production. The Savoy, a state-of-the-art theatre in London specialising in Gilbert & Sullivan productions, was the first public building in the world lit entirely by electricity. This is quite an inspiring story because you have to admire Joseph Swan’s persistence over a period of 30 years.

In the rest of the Science Maze, you can test how quick your reactions are depending on which lights display on the car in front of you and find out how message tubes work. Visitors can admire signal levers, models of steam engines, a skeleton clock and compare and contrast the merits of a Sinclair C5 as it hangs above the chassis of an Austin 7. I applaud inventors and their inventions, but it’s hard to believe anyone could think that a Sinclair C5 would be a safe vehicle to drive on a British road as it was so low down to the ground and utterly flimsy – even a well built hedgehog could have caused the C5 problems.

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