He graduated from Durham University with a DSc.
Beginning his career as a chemist's apprentice, he later became an assistant and then a partner in a company manufacturing photographic wet plates in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.
Sir Joseph served as president of the British Institute of Electrical Engineers, vice-president of RPS, president of the Society of Chemical Industry and president of the Faraday Society. He was vice-president of the Senate of University College, London, from 1899 to 1903, as well as a life governor of the college.
Swan invented the dry plate in 1871, bromide paper in 1878, a primitive incandescent electric light in 1860 and a practical carbon-filament light bulb in 1878. He presented the latter to the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Chemical Society on December 18, 1878. Using nitrocellulose, he also developed the principles later used to manufacture the first synthetic fabric, rayon (1883). Outside of photography, Swan invented a miner's safety lamp, an electric meter and electric accumulators.
In 1894 Swan was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was made an honorary member of the Pharmaceutical Society.