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The Great Inventor Lewis Howard Latimer

Lewis Howard Latimer   1848-1928

Lewis Howard Latimer was a pioneer in the development of the electric light bulb.  He was the only Black member of the Edison Pioneers, a group of distinguished scientists and inventors who worked with Thomas Edison.

​Lattimer, whose father was a former slave, was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in 1848, and raised in Boston.  At age sixteen, Latimer enlisted in the Navy and served as a cabinboy on the U.S.S. Massasoit ​for the remainder of the Civil War.  In 1865, after receiving an honorable discharge, he returned to Boston seeking work.  His skill in mechanical drawing enabled him to secure a position with Crosby and Gould, patent solicitors.  The work of the patent draftsmen fascinated young Latimer, and he taught himself draftsmanship skills.  Becoming confident, he asked to be allowed to submit some drawings.  The request was begrudgingly granted, but Latimer's impressive work earned him the position of junior draftsman and, in a short time, he was advanced to chief draftsman.  During the late 1870's, he married Mary Wilson, and later fathered two daughters.

Around 1876, Alexander Graham Bell had recognized his need for a highly skilled draftsman to prepare blueprints for his new invention, the telephone.  Bell went to Crosby and Gould, and it was Latimer who was given the assignment to draw the plans for Bells's telephone patent.

In 1879, Latimer left Crosby and Gould to work as a draftsman for Hiram Maxim, who invented the machine gun and also headed the U.S. Electric Lighting Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  Although electricity was in its infancy, Latimer perceived it to be the wave of the future.  Latimer proceeded to work on improving the quality and life of the carbon filament used in the light bulb.  In 1882, he received a patent for what was probably his most important invention--an improved process for manufacturing carbon filaments.  This process proved far superior to any other due to longer lasting properties because the carbon filaments, made from the cellulose of cotton thread or bamboo, were excellent conductors of electricity.  He assigned this patent and others to the U.S. Electric Lighting Company.

Latimer left Maxim and transferred to the engineering department at the Edison Company in 1884.  He supervised the installation of Edison's electric light systems in New York, Philadelphia, Canada and London.  Six years later Latimer was assigned to the legal department where he performed an invaluable service as an expert witness, defending Edison's patent in court.  Millions of dollars were at stake.  Based on Latimer's testimony Edison won his cases because of Latimer's vast knowledge of electrical patents.  Latimer was a man of many talents and skills, not limited to electrical inventions.  Volumes of his love poems were privately published; he also authored a book in 1890, entitled Incandescent Electric Lighting.

​Lewis Latimer did more than just help to bring electric lights to the streets of New York and its office buildings, homes and subway stations.  Through his many activities, he brought "light" to the lives of those around him.  He worked for civil rights organizations, and taught recent immigrants mechanical drawing and the English language in a New York City community center.  Lewis Latimer's death in 1928 was mourned the world over.  In honor of his significant contributions to America's industrial revolution, the Lewis H. Latimer Public School, dedicated on May 10, 1968 in Brooklyn, New York, bears his name.

Excerpt from A Salute to Black Scientists and Inventors.

​This is only a summary of the life of Lewis H. Latimer.