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Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton

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Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton (1863-1930), electrical engineer

1863 born in Edinburgh, on 18 October, the third son of Archibald Campbell Swinton, professor of civil law in the University of Edinburgh, and his wife, Georgiana Caroline (nee Sitwell)

1878 Attended Fettes College, Edinburgh.

1881 went to Le Havre to study French and mathematics, and visited the Paris Exhibition, where he was deeply impressed by the electrical inventions seen there.

1882 Started apprenticeship in Armstrong's engineering works at Elswick-on-Tyne.

1883 Published a book, "The Principles and Practice of Electric Lighting". Introduced lead-covered wires and cables for electric wiring in ships.

1887 Moved to London and set up as an electrical contractor and consulting engineer. Carried out electric lighting installations in many country houses, and was connected with several of the earliest electric supply companies (especially those which employed steam turbines) including the Scarborough Electric Supply Co and the Cambridge Electric Supply Co, of which he became managing director.

Became chairman of Crompton and Co

1896 Took first photograph produced by X-rays in England, within a month of the announcement of Röntgen's discovery, and continued to work with X-rays.

1896 Introduced Guglielmo Marconi to William Henry Preece, engineer-in-chief of the Post Office, which led to deployment of radio telegraphy

Assisted Charles Parsons with the early development of the steam turbine and with the construction of the turbine ship Turbinia; he was a director of Parsons's company.

1904 ended the contracting part of the business.

1908 Published his ideas for the use of cathode ray tubes to transmit and display pictures in response to a critique of a mechanical system by Shelford Bidwell

Post WWI: Advised BBC engineers against using John Logie Baird's television system.

1926 He retired from the electrical and general consulting engineering practice that he had carried on for the past thirty-seven years at 66, Victoria-Street, Westminster, S.W.I. He continued special consulting work at 40, Chester-square, London, S.W.I., which became his permanent address.[1]

1930 Died in London


1930 Obituary [2]

ALAN ARCHIBALD CAMPBELL SWINTON commenced to practise as a consulting engineer in London at the early age of 24, in 1887, and since then distinguished himself by his scientific researches, especially in radiology and wireless.

He was trained in the Armstrong works at Elswick from 1882 to 1887, and throughout his career was closely associated with the industrial side of engineering.

At an early date he became chairman of Messrs. Crompton and Company and he was a member of the original syndicate, which, in 1894, financed the experimental vessel "Turbinia," subsequently becoming a director, from its inception, of the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company.

Mr. Campbell Swinton was one of the first in this country to experiment with X-rays and to make them available for medical and surgical purposes. In the field of wireless telegraphy he devised, in 1914, an ingenious method of recording signals and at an early date he installed a wireless telephone between his office in Victoria Street and his house in Chester Square.

Mr. Campbell Swinton became a Member of the Institution in 1910, and he was also a Member of the Institutions of Civil and Electrical Engineers. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1915. He was chairman of the British Scientific Instrument Research Association and a member of the general board of the National Physical Laboratory, as well as being prominently associated with many other scientific bodies.

He died at the age of 66, on 19th February 1930.


1930 Obituary [3]

ALAN ARCHIBALD CAMPBELL SWINTON, F.R.S., was born on the 18th October, 1863, and died on the 19th February, 1930. His death means a heavy loss to scientific research, for he carried out numerous valuable investigations, particularly in connection with X-rays and radio communication.

He was the third son of Archibald Campbell Swinton, of Kimmerghame, Berwickshire, a professor of civil law in the University of Edinburgh from 1842 to 1862. Even in childhood Mr. Alan Campbell Swinton showed an interest in engineering, as is evidenced by an oil painting of him at the age of nine with a steam-engine in his hand which was exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy Exhibition in 1872.

At his first school - Cargilfield, Edinburgh - he was allowed to cultivate his scientific talent. He became a practised photographer, and gave exhibitions with a magic lantern for the entertainment of his schoolfellows. His dislike of games and the humdrum methods adopted in the teaching of the classics made life distasteful to him at Fettes College, the public school which he entered in 1878. He found a solace there, however, in his work in the carpenter's shop.

In 1879, some two years after the invention of the telephone, he read an account of the instrument written by Prof. Dolbear. Although he was only fifteen, within a short time he had constructed an efficient pair of telephones unaided, a task which would have presented some difficulty even to a trained scientific worker.

After two years at Fettes he was sent abroad for a short period. He studied mathematics and French at Havre, and was greatly delighted by the collection of electrical apparatus which he saw at the Paris Exhibition in 1881.

Returning to England, he was in the following year apprenticed to Messrs. W. G. Armstrong, Mitchell and Co. at their Elswick works. Here he took part in the work of equipping a battleship with electric gun-firing control. At the close of his period of apprenticeship in 1887 he became an electrical contractor and consulting engineer in London.

He had previously published a book, "The Principles and Practice of Electric Lighting," and his work now included the installation of electric light in many large town and country houses. His connection with X-rays began in January, 1896, when - inspired by a newspaper account of Prof. W. K. Rontgen's discovery - he employed a Crookes tube to obtain the first X-ray shadow photograph ever produced in this country, a photograph of the bones in his own hand.

With Sir Charles Parsons he heated a diamond in a vacuum by means of cathode rays. The diamond was converted into coke at a temperature of 1890°C, at the same time undergoing a considerable increase in size.

From 1904 onwards he devoted his entire attention to consulting work and became particularly interested in radio engineering.

He introduced the Marchese Marconi to Sir William Preece on the occasion of the first visit of the former to this country, and radio telegraphy made rapid strides shortly afterwards.

In 1924 Mr. Campbell Swinton became a member of the Broadcasting Board. He was a director of the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Co., Ltd., and was connected with the development of the Parsons turbine and the first turbine-driven boat, the "Turbinia."

He was also a director of Crompton, Parkinson, Ltd., of W. T. Henley's Telegraph Works, Ltd., and of Ricardo and Co., Worthing.

In 1915 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and twice served on the council of that body. He was one of the managers of the Royal Institution for the period 1912-15, and had been president both of the Rontgen Society and the Radio Society of Great Britain. For periods of varying length he had been a member of the general board and of the executive committee of the National Physical Laboratory, and vice-president and chairman of the council of the Royal Society of Arts.

Throughout his life he was a great believer in self-education, and he considered the passing of advanced examinations to be a waste of time. In his opinion his own success was due to the cultivation of scientific friends, and attendance at lectures such as those delivered at the Royal Institution and the Royal Society of Arts. At his home (he was unmarried) he showed great hospitality, delighting to entertain his guests with demonstrations of the most recent achievements in radio communication and with a collection of photographs which he had taken of eminent scientists.

He joined the Institution as an Associate in 1886, was elected a Member in 1890 and was a Vice-President during the years 1921-25.


1930 Obituary[4]

"THE LATE MR. A. A. CAMPBELL SWINTON.

'Mr. A. A. Campbell Swinton, F.R.S., M.Inst.C.E., M.I.Mech.E., M.I.E.E., who, we regret to have to announce, died in London on February 19, in his sixty-seventh year, was not quite of the age of the pioneers of electric engineering, but was old enough to have made use of his own knowledge and skill when electric lighting, electric power transmission, radiology and radio-communication were being developed.

Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton was born on October 18, 1863, in Edinburgh, being the third son of Archibald Campbell Swinton, of Kimmerghame, Berwickshire, professor of civil law in Edinburgh University, and brigadier-general of the Royal Company of Archers. The Swintons are a very old Scottish family. His mother was a daughter of Sir George Sitwell, Bart., and his father’s sister became the mother of Archbishop Davidson. He was educated in Edinburgh, and abroad, mainly in France. After five years’ training and work in the various departments of Messrs. Armstrong’s establishment at Elswick, he started in practice as a consulting engineer in Westminster, in 1887, where he fitted up a laboratory well equipped for electrical research. He frequently carried out demonstrations illustrating recent developments in the physical and electric fields in which he was interested.

The first Rontgen radiograms which he showed in this country converted many sceptics to a belief in the possibilities of the new rays, and the improvements which he was able to make in X-ray tubes and their use secured him election to the presidency of the Rontgen Society of London in 1911. He was President of the Wireless Society in 1913. He contributed various papers to scientific societies and wrote two books on electric lighting. As consulting engineer to numerous companies he was early brought into contact and association with Messrs. Crompton and Company, and later with the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Co but these activities were more of an administrative and commercial than of a technical character. Thanks to his intervention, the apparatus used by Professor D. E. Hughes in his early researches on electric waves were placed in the collections of the Science Museum, where models of Swinton’s own inventions, comprising a telephone and radio-telegraphic apparatus, are also to be seen. Swinton was twice Chairman of the Council of the Royal Society of Arts, in 1917-19, and again in 1920-22. He presented, in 1926, the Royal Society, of which he was a Fellow, and a Member of Council from 1927-1929, with a nucleus of 1,0002 for a General Purposes Fund. Though not a frequent attendant at the British Association meetings, he bore the expense of procuring a Royal Charter for the Association in 1928."


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Sources of Information

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