Newcastle and Tyneside in general, is rightly famous for the inventions developed here. From the railways to the hydraulic crane and also from the very first turbine thrust ship come the electric light bulb (and countless others besides), Tyneside was the house of some of the most crucial inventions in human history. But the last creation mentioned above would be of small use to usage without a switch to aid us revolve it on. Thankfully the was additionally invented. And also the place where it to be invented? Yes, Newcastle again, not far from Heaton, by a guy with solid links come Heaton itself.

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That male was man Henry Holmes, one engineer, Quaker and also inventor. Holmes to be born in Newcastle ~ above 6 June 1857 and grew up first of every in Gateshead and also then in Jesmond. His father was a ‘paint and color manufacturer, glass and also oil merchant’ v his very own factory. Man attended the Friends college in Bootham, York, whereby he to be taught the rudiments the science. Holmes should have took in much the what he to be taught as, in ~ the age of 16, he won a location at the Durham university of physical Science, later Armstrong College, now Newcastle University. 2 years later, having completed his studies, Holmes to be apprenticed to Head, Wrightson and Co of Stockton-on Tees.

Light switch

It was at Head, Wrightson and also Co that Holmes started to handle electrical apparatus. Then in August, 1881, Holmes came to be an electric engineer, working for john S Raworth that Manchester. His an initial work with Raworth to be helping to fit the end a new ship, City the Rome, constructed by Barrow Shipbuilders in 1881, with 16 arc lamps and also 230 Swan lamps.

In April 1883, john made a bolder decision. Having built upon his successful job-related with City the Rome by continuing to download lamps both onshore and in ships, Holmes decided to establish his own firm in Newcastle, in addition to his father and two elder brothers, Alfred and Theodore. So that was that an electrical engineering business under the surname of J H Holmes to be established. The firm was come last till 1928, completely 45 years, till their job-related was bring away under the wing of A Reyrolle and Co Ltd. Consequently, the job-related initiated by Holmes go on for over 50 years under his supervision and in part respects proceeds to this day.

It to be the complying with year the Holmes invented his irradiate switch, the an initial in the world, in ~ his workshop ~ above Portland Road, Shieldfield, just external Heaton. This switch allowed electric irradiate to be conveniently used. In1883, Holmes had installed electric lighting in ‘Wellburn’, the family members home in Jesmond, which thus came to be the an initial house in Newcastle to be lit by electricity. This work brought about Holmes to develop what is currently the familiar quick break switch. He patented this development in good Britain and the United says in 1884.

Holmes’ light switch, the exploration Museum

This was a vast breakthrough, in helping civilization to use electrical lights. This brand-new technology ensured that what was well-known as electric arcing to be prevented, by bring about the inner contacts to move apart easily enough. This was really important as electrical arcing could reason fires or shorten the life expectancy of a switch.You deserve to still view Holmes’ original development at Newcastle’s discovery Museum.

Prolific inventor

Holmes no restrict his work to this country. The Suez Canal was opened in November 1869 and by the so late 1880s had become crucial transport artery because that the brother Empire, cutting travel time for ships between the Indian subcontinent and also Britain. In 1889, Holmes went to Egypt, where he studied the needs of ship traveling follow me the canal at night. Subsequently, Holmes ‘designed and supplied portable lighting device that successfully increased the volume of the Canal by greatly prolonging its use in the dark hours’.

Holmes then relocated on to finding means of light trains and also producing electroplating dynamos. This are described as being, ‘designed for short potential and high present intensity. They are wound for short resistance, commonly several wires being provided in parallel, or ribbon, bar or rectangular conductors gift employed. They space of the direct present type. They must be shunt wound or they are liable come reverse. They space sometimes listed with resistance in the shunt, i beg your pardon is adjusted as preferred to transform the electro-motive force.’ So there, currently you know… however you describe Holmes’ work, he to be certainly developing a call for pioneering electric engineering work.

Holmes was without doubt a prolific inventor. In 1897, Holmes commenced the sale of ‘Lundell’ motors under patent native the USA. This has been viewed as a ‘pioneering action in the electric driving that industry’ and indeed one of the early and also most interesting uses of this motor was in electric cabs.

The complying with year Holmes was at it again! This time he developed something i m sorry would assist the publishing industries, because that it remained in 1898 that the Holmes-Clatworthy 2-motor device was patented and this would certainly go on to drive newspaper presses for many of the world most necessary newspapers.

As the twenty century dawned, so the agency continued to develop and Holmes remained involved. It has actually been stated of Holmes the his, ‘personal influence on its design side was invaluable because of his practically passionate love of good mechanical ideas’.

Holmes was recognized as a please man, through a reputation for having actually a quiet, retiring nature. Undoubtedly it has been claimed of him that his nature triggered Holmes come perform, ‘many you re welcome acts and caused him to take a specifically keen interest in young people, and his orderly mind compelled that to do his best in all the he undertook and permitted him to play a notable component in the spread of a new means of act things’.

Holmes and also Heaton

So we have actually learnt that man Henry Holmes invented the irradiate switch very close come Heaton in adjoining Shieldfield, yet what links did he need to Heaton itself?

Holmes had at the very least two close web links with Heaton. The 1901 census shows us the his brother Ellwood was living in High Heaton in ~ ‘Wyncote’ on Jesmond Park East. It describes him together being 35 years of age and an ‘employer’. he is explained as an ‘Electrical Engineer and also Paint and Colour Manufacturer.‘ that is evidently functioning in the family members business. In ~ this time, Ellwood has a 28 year-old wife referred to as Edith, a son called Charles, age three, and also two sisters, Margaret and also Ada, age 30 and 24 respectively, living through his family. In 1911, Ellwood was still top top Jesmond Park East and also had added ‘licensed methylator’ to his list of occupations. This is someone licensed to manufacture and also sell methylated spirits.

In 1928, once John Henry Holmes was 71 year old, his company, J H Holmes and also Co, was integrated into A Reyrolle and Co in Hebburn together a wholly-owned subsidiary. For this reason it was that 6 years later, in the last year that his life, Holmes’ work obtained a straight Heaton connection. It has actually been detailed that, ‘A Reyrolle and Co created Parolle electric Plant Co Ltd as a private company for construction of electrical and other plant v the specific aim of acquiring shares in C A Parsons and Co native the executors the the heritage of the late teacher Charles Parsons. 2 directors were appointed by Reyrolle and one through Parsons.’ therefore Holmes’ work became directly linked to Heaton’s most well known company.


John Henry Holmes’ eventful life ended in 1935.He is buried in Old Jesmond Cemetery.


As the saying goes, ‘if you want to see his legacy, look around you’.

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If friend are reading this somewhere indoors, it do not do it be too complicated to watch an electric light switch. It has actually been noted that Holmes’ ‘quick break technology remains in usage in domestic and industrial light switches modern times.’


‘A Fine and also Private Place: Jesmond Old Cemetery‘ / by Alan Morgan; Tyne Bridge, 2000. 1857951557

The Northumbrians: North-East England and also Its People: a new history’ / by Dan Jackson; Hurst, 2019. 1787381943


Find mine Past


Researched and also written through Peter Sagar, Heaton history Group with additional material through Arthur Andrews. Say thanks to you to Newcastle Libraries for the picture of man Henry Holmes.

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