James Swinburne

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James Swinburne 2016-12-06T05:35:21+00:00

Sir James
Bart. FRS
(1858 – 1958)

James Swinburne was born in Inverness on 28 February 1858. He served an apprenticeship at a locomotive works in Manchester before becoming an electrical engineer.

Swinburne became an outstanding figure in the electrical industry. He worked with Swan on the first electric light bulb and coined the words ‘stator’ and ‘rotor’. He was the first President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers and the nominees for his Fellowship of the Royal Society included some of the most illustrious names in science – Kelvin, Crookes, and Lodge among others.

Swinburne became interested in the potential of plastics in 1902 when he was introduced to a product of the phenol formaldehyde reaction. He formed a small London-based company, Fireproof Celluloid Syndicate Limited, to research and market the product. Although they were unable to produce a good, solid resin or moulding material, they were able to make an excellent hard lacquer for coating metals such as brass – then in fashion for making bedsteads. In 1910, the Syndicate was wound-up and its assets transferred to a new company, The Damard Lacquer Company Limited with a small factory in Bradford Street, Birminghan in the heart of the brass industry.

Although Swinburne had taken out a number of patents, the more important of these were pre-dated by those of Leo Baekeland in the USA whose researches and development of a range of phenol formaldehyde-based products, which sold under the Bakelite trademark, were hugely successful in many parts of the world. In 1927, Swinburne concluded an agreement with Baekeland in which the Damard Lacquer Company was merged with two other English companies, Moldensite Limited of Darley Dale and Redmanol Limited of London (both lincensees of Baekeland’s patents and controlled by him) to form a new company, Bakelite Limited, to exploit Baekeland’s products in the UK and elsewhere. Sir James Swinburne was appointed its first Chairman and in September 1927 production of Bakelite materials began at a new factory purpose built on a 29½ acre site in Tyseley, Birmingham.