When we look back on the great inventors of 19th century America, we can recall big names such as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. However, one man connects these figures, someone who worked with these men on the most famous inventions of our time and, in some cases, improved on their work. Sadly, this man is not a household name.
The man’s name is Lewis Howard Latimer, and his work helped bring electricity to the masses, and his inventions have impacted our lives in more ways than we know.
Lewis Howard Latimer was born on September 4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts, the youngest of four children. His parents, George and Rebecca Latimer, had escaped from the bonds of slavery in neighboring Virginia and traveled to Boston in hopes of freedom. However, George was arrested in Boston as a fugitive and jailed. Before being sent back to Virginia, a Black Minister paid $400 ($14,365 in today’s dollars) for his freedom. Although free, George was very poor and worked several odd jobs to support his growing family.
Lewis Latimer had no formal training in science; however, as a young boy, he developed a love for drawing early on, and this skill served him well as he advanced in his career. At 16, Mr. Latimer joined the Union Navy during the Civil War. At the end of the war, he secured a job at a patent law firm, Crosby and Gould, where he could hone his technical drawing skills and eventually became Chief Draftsman at the firm. Mr. Latimer secured his first patent in 1874 for the water closet – an improved toilet system for railroad cars.
In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell hired Mr. Latimer to assist him with his work on his telephone invention and his race to get a patent before any of his competitors. With Mr. Latimer’s expertise in draftsmanship and legal procedure, he was able to submit the patent application on February 14, 1876, a few hours before rival inventor Elisha Gray. If not for Mr. Latimer’s expertise and knowledge, the Bell name may not have the recognition that it holds today.
In 1880 Latimer began working as a mechanical draftsman with the United States Electric Lighting Company, run by Thomas Edison’s rival Hiram S. Maxim. While working at the company, Mr. Latimer and Joseph Nichols created and patented a lightbulb with a carbon filament in 1881, which significantly improved the life of Edison’s bulbs, which used paper and bamboo filaments that burned out much quicker. Latimer also registered a patent for manufacturing carbons for use in lightbulbs.
“Like the light of the sun, it beautifies all things on which it shines, and is no less welcome in the palace than in the humblest home.”
Given Mr. Latimer’s vast expertise and knowledge in the field, the Edison Electric Light Company recruited him in 1884. Latimer worked closely with Edison as his patent investigator and expert witness protecting Edison’s inventions against imitators. During this time, Latimer wrote the book Incandescent Electric Lighting, where he noted how the new technology would bring electricity to everyone, regardless of class or status. “Like the light of the sun, it beautifies all things on which it shines, and is no less welcome in the palace than in the humblest home.”
While passionate about scientific innovation, Mr. Latimer did not neglect racial justice issues. In 1895 in support of the National Conference of Colored Men, a “My Brother’s Keeper” type of initiative of that time, Mr. Latimer wrote: “If our cause be made the common cause, and all our claims and demands be founded on justice and humanity, recognizing that we must wrong no man in winning our rights, I have faith to believe that the Nation will respond to our plea for equality before the law, security under the law, and an opportunity, by and through maintenance of the law, to enjoy with our fellow citizens of all races and complexions the blessings guaranteed us under the Constitution.”
Mr. Lewis Howard Latimer came from so little during a time when African Americans lived as less than second-class citizens in America. Because of his superior intelligence and tireless work ethic, he rose and created fundamental advances in many technologies that we still use today. Although his name is not now a household name, it should be. The name, Lewis Howard Latimer, deserves a place among the great inventors of all time.