Biography of Lewis Latimer, Noted African-American Inventor

Lewis Latimer

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Lewis Latimer (Sept. 4, 1848—Dec. 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 light

Also Known As: Louis Latimer

Born: Sept. 4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts

Parents: Rebecca and George Latimer

Died: Dec. 11, 1928, in Flushing, Queens, New York

Published Works: “Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System”

Spouse: Mary Wilson

Children: Emma Jeanette, Louise Rebecca

Notable Quote: "We create our future, by well improving present opportunities: however few and small they are."

Early Life

Lewis Latimer was born on Sept. 4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He was the youngest of four children born to George Latimer, a paperhanger, and Rebecca Smith Latimer, both escaped slaves. His parents had fled from Virginia in 1842, hiding beneath the deck of a northbound ship, but his father was recognized in Boston, Massachusetts, by a former employee of their owner. George Latimer was arrested as a fugitive and brought to trial, where he was defended by noted abolitionists 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, a slave, couldn't sue for his freedom. Possibly fearing a return to slavery, 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 U.S.S. Massasoit and received an honorable discharge on July 3, 1865. He returned to Boston, Massachusetts, and took a position as 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, and they 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 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 to install the first electric plants in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; New York, New York; and Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and he oversaw 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 Dec. 11, 1928, in Flushing, 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.

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