A Brief Account of a Short Life of a Forgotten Man

Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

Have you ever experienced a time when you have felt completely ignored or forgotten?

Have you ever had a time in your work-life, or maybe your personal life, when you felt that your efforts and achievements have not been fully recognised or rewarded?

I would guess each of us could answer ‘yes’ to either or both of those questions.

How would you feel, however, if you had devised one of the most significant and most used inventions in modern society and yet, nobody knew who you were?

First, I suppose, we should try to identify what I am referring to when I talk about one of the most significant and most used inventions.

If you were asked to draw up a list of the most important inventions, you would probably include items such as; the internet, radio, television, flight, the internal combustion engine, the silicon chip.., each of which would be a worthy candidate.

I, however, am thinking of an even more significant invention. I am not a gambling man but I would bet that each of us has used this invention at least once already today and will probably used it again before the end of the day.

Let me keep you in the dark no longer.

I am claiming that the most significant invention of our modern society is the on/off switch.

Just think about it, how many of our modern devices would fail to work if we could not switch them on?

How long would batteries last if we could not switch off our devices when we needed to?

The on/off switch is all pervasive in our society, yet who was it who invented it?

… and you say you’ve experienced times when you’ve been forgotten!

Dear readers, let me introduce you to the name;

John Henry Holmes

… inventor of the On/Off switch.

John Henry Holmes was born on the 6th June 1857 in Newcastle, England. Genealogy records reveal that he was the third child of William and Mary Holmes, a Quaker family and local business owners. They employed around 20 people in their glass and paint manufacturing company in Gateshead, England.

When he became of school age, John Henry’s parents sent him to a residential Quaker school at Bootham in York, England. Where, it was evident, he took a shine in the sciences.

After school, he went to Durham Science College. It is possibly here that he first encountered a man and an invention which were to have a big influence on his life and work. Here, it is recorded that he attended a demonstration given by the inventor of the incandescent light bulb.

We all know who it was who invented the light bulb, do we not? If you think the inventor was Thomas Edison, please stand up and go sit at the back of the class. The incandescent lightbulb was invented by Joseph Swan.

It appears that John Henry Holmes was so excited by Swan’s demonstration, that he applied several times to become an apprentice to Swan. However, it seems he was turned down each time.

After completing college, John Henry Holmes returned to live with his parents who, by this time, had moved into a house called Wellburn in Jesmond, which is now part of the city of Newcastle.

I can reveal at this point that John Henry Holmes never married. We can only speculate why that was and it is tempting to suggest that he was ‘married’ to his work. Evidence for this can be drawn from his application to join the Institution of Civil Engineers, which reveals that he held several positions, mostly as a draughtsman, which a number of companies before starting up his own company. More significantly, perhaps, is the revelation that his company’s most important patent was filed on February 14th, Valentine’s Day, 1884.

Records reveal that one company he worked for before starting his own, was Siemens. This may surprise you if you, like myself, had always thought Siemens was a German company. In fact, one of the Siemen brothers had set up a British arm of the company.

It was while working for Siemens that John Henry Holmes once more encountered the work of Joseph Swan. The company was fitting out a ship called ‘City of Rome’. Their job was to install Arc lights (which had been invented by Humphry Davy)and two hundred of Swan’s new incandescent lights.

Siemens were also responsible for installing electric lighting in domestic properties at that time. Indeed, the Holmes’ own house in Jesmond was one of the first in the city to have electrical lighting.

The problem was there was not a safe way of switching them on and off. The problem with switching off an electrical device is that the current wants to continue and would often arc, risking the electrocution of anyone touching the switch.

John Henry Holmes contribution was to design, patent and build the quick break switch which avoided the possibility of arcing. His design still forms the basis of modern day on/off switches.

John Henry’s mother died in 1905, his father in 1908. In the will, the father left John and his brother the sum of £81000 to invest in their businesses. John Henry had built his own factory and continued to employ people building switches and dynamos.

He died in 1935 and was buried in the same grave as his parents. You can find their unimposing gravestone in Old Jesmond Cemetery, Newcastle. It lies on the grass, looking somewhat ignored and neglected.

In his obituary, it has been claimed that John Henry Holmes, although a successful businessman, was somewhat shy and retiring. He also followed the Quaker tradition of philanthropy by giving much of his earnings to ‘good causes.’

Whatever his personality and traits, it does seem sad that the man who invented such a significant device, should remain largely forgotten.

What can we learn from the life of John Henry Holmes? Perhaps we should not worry if we are ignored, forgotten or overlooked. Perhaps we should not worry if our efforts and contributions do not gain the rewards we feel they deserve.

If our efforts and contribution go unrewarded, we have still made those contributions and their value does not diminish. If we are ignored or forgotten, we are still valuable human beings.

We should not define our success by glory or self-esteem.