Humanities › History & Culture Biography of Lewis Latimer, Noted African American Inventor Share Flipboard Email Print Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain History & Culture Inventions Famous Inventors Famous Inventions Patents & Trademarks Invention Timelines Computers & The Internet American History African American History African History Ancient History and Culture Asian History European History Genealogy Latin American History Medieval & Renaissance History Military History The 20th Century Women's History View More By Mary Bellis Inventions Expert Mary Bellis covered inventions and inventors for ThoughtCo for 18 years. She is known for her independent films and documentaries, including one about Alexander Graham Bell. our editorial process Mary Bellis Updated July 28, 2019 Lewis Latimer (September 4, 1848–December 11, 1928) is considered one of the most important African American inventors, for the number of inventions he produced and patents he secured, but also for the importance of his best-known discovery: a longer-lasting filament for the electric light. He also helped Alexander Graham Bell obtain the patent for the first telephone. Latimer was in great demand for his expertise later in his career as electric light spread across the country. Fast Facts: Lewis Latimer Known For: Improved the electric lightAlso Known As: Louis LatimerBorn: September 4, 1848 in Chelsea, MassachusettsParents: Rebecca and George LatimerDied: December 11, 1928 in Flushing, Queens, New YorkPublished Works: Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison SystemSpouse: Mary WilsonChildren: Emma Jeanette, Louise RebeccaNotable Quote: "We create our future, by well improving present opportunities: however few and small they are." Early Life Lewis Latimer was born on September 4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He was the youngest of four children born to George Latimer, a paperhanger, and Rebecca Smith Latimer, who both escaped enslavement. His parents had fled from Virginia in 1842 by hiding beneath the deck of a northbound ship, but his father was recognized in Boston, Massachusetts by a former employee of their enslaver. George Latimer was arrested and brought to trial, where he was defended by noted abolitionists and activists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Eventually, a group of abolitionists paid $400 for his freedom. George Latimer disappeared shortly after the Dred Scott decision of 1857, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Scott, an enslaved man, couldn't sue for his freedom. Possibly fearing a return to enslavement, Latimer went underground. It was a great hardship for the rest of the Latimer family. Early Career Lewis Latimer worked to help support his mother and siblings. Then, In 1864, at age 15, Latimer lied about his age in order to enlist in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. Latimer was assigned to the gunboat USS Massasoit and received an honorable discharge on July 3, 1865. He returned to Boston, Massachusetts and took a position as an office boy with the patent law firm Crosby & Gould. He taught himself mechanical drawing and drafting by observing draftsmen at the firm. Recognizing Latimer's talent and promise, the partners promoted him to draftsman and, eventually, head draftsmen. During this time he married Mary Wilson in November 1873. The couple had two daughters, Emma Jeanette and Louise Rebecca. The Telephone In 1874 while at the firm, Latimer co-invented an improvement to the bathroom compartment of trains. Two years later, he was sought out as a draftsman by an instructor of children who were hard of hearing; the man wanted drawings for a patent application on a device he had created. The instructor was Alexander Graham Bell, and the device was the telephone. Working late into the evenings, Latimer labored to complete the patent application. It was submitted on Feb. 14, 1876, just hours before another application was made for a similar device. With Latimer's help, Bell won the patent rights to the telephone. Edison's Competitor In 1880, after relocating to Bridgeport, Connecticut, Latimer was hired as assistant manager and draftsman for the U.S. Electric Lighting Co., which was owned by Hiram Maxim. Maxim was the chief competitor of Thomas Edison, who had invented the electric light. Edison’s light consisted of a nearly airless glass bulb surrounding a carbon wire filament, typically made from bamboo, paper, or thread. When electricity ran through the filament, it became so hot that it literally glowed. Maxim hoped to improve on Edison’s light bulb by focusing on its main weakness: its brief life span, typically only a few days. Latimer set out to make a longer-lasting light bulb. He developed a way to encase the filament in a cardboard envelope that prevented the carbon from breaking up, giving the bulbs a much longer life while making them less expensive and more efficient. Latimer’s expertise had become well known, and he was sought after to continue to improve on incandescent lighting as well as arc lighting. As more major cities began wiring their roadways for electric lighting, Latimer was selected to lead several planning teams. He helped install the first electric plants in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; New York, New York; and Montreal, Quebec. He also oversaw the installation of lighting in railroad stations, government buildings, and major thoroughfares in Canada, New England, and London. Edison Latimer started working for Edison in 1884 and became involved in Edison's infringement lawsuits. He worked in the legal department of the Edison Electric Light Co. as the chief draftsman and patent specialist. He drafted sketches and documents related to Edison patents, looked over plants in search of patent infringements, carried out patent searches, and testified in court on Edison’s behalf. He never worked in any of Edison's labs, but he was the only Black member of a group known as the "Edison Pioneers," men who had worked closely with the inventor in his early years. Latimer also co-authored a book on electricity published in 1890 called "Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System." Later Innovations In subsequent years, Latimer continued to display his innovative abilities. In 1894 he created a safety elevator, a vast improvement on existing elevators. Then he obtained a patent for “Locking Racks for Hats, Coats, and Umbrellas” that was used in restaurants, resorts, and office buildings. He also developed a method for making rooms more hygienic and climate-controlled, named an “Apparatus for Cooling and Disinfecting.” Latimer died on December 11, 1928, in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York. His wife Mary had died four years earlier. Legacy Lewis Latimer rose from humble beginnings with little education to play a major role in the development of two products that had massive impacts on the lives of Americans: the light bulb and the telephone. The fact that he was a Black American born in the 19th century made his many successes even more impressive. Sources "Lewis Latimer." Greatblackheroes.com."Lewis Howard Latimer Biography." Biography.com."Lewis Latimer." Famousinventors.org.