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Meet the black man who made widespread use of electric light possible

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Lewis_latimer 2Lewis Latimer was a black inventor, engineer and draftsman whose most well known contributions were to the patenting of the light bulb.  He was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on September 4, 1848, and unlike most blacks born before the Civil War, he was born free.  His parents, George and Rebecca Latimer, were escaped slaves from Virginia.

The Latimer’s were able to retain their freedom despite George being arrested in Boston in 1842 and being ordered to return to his owner in Virginia.  He remained free thanks to thousands of Bostonians, Frederick Douglass, and William Lloyd Garrison.  A local black Baptist minister named Samuel Caldwell helped raise the money necessary to pay off George’s owner and ensure that Lewis was born free.  The family settled in Chelsea, and George became a prominent activist for African American rights.  Shortly after the Dred Scott decision in 1857, when Latimer was just 10 years old, his father went into hiding, forcing him to help support his family by selling anti-slavery newspapers. 

In 1864, Latimer enlisted in the United States Navy during the Civil War.  After serving and receiving an honorable discharge, Latimer accepted a position with the Crosby and Gould patent law office where he taught himself mechanical drawing and drafting by observing the work of draftsmen who worked at the firm.  After firm partners took note of his talent, Latimer was promoted to draftsman.  Upon being promoted to chief draftsman, he prepared the drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s historic patent for the telephone and soon became preoccupied with dreaming up some of his own inventions.

Lewis LatimerIn 1874, Latimer was granted his first patent as co-inventor of an improved toilet for railroad cars.  Not long after, Latimer left the firm and moved to Bridgeport, Conneticut where he found work as a draftsman in a machine shop. He soon caught the attention of Hiram Stevens Maxim, founder of the U.S. Electric Light Company, who hired him to produce drawings for electrical installations.

Maxim and his company competed with Thomas Edison for the fast-growing electric lighting market, and in 1881 and 1882, Latimer helped Maxim gain an edge by patenting methods for manufacturing superior carbon filaments that were less expensive to make and lasted longer than existing filaments.  Using those patents, Maxim’s company was able to expand, and Latimer became responsible for setting up manufacturing plants and installing street lighting in the United States, Canada, and Britain.  As part of this work, Latimer was able to develop a new wiring scheme that used parallel circuits in street lights that allowed lamps to remain lit if one went out.

In 1884, after returning from helping set up a lamp factory in London, England, Latimer joined Edison Electric Light Company in New York where he worked as an engineer for six years and then moved to the legal department where he helped Edison defend his patents in court.  In 1896, Latimer was appointed to the Board of Patent Control which oversaw patent disputes and then eventually became an independent patent consultant as well as a founding member of the Edison Pioneers, a group of scientists who worked with Edison.  Latimer was the only black member of the group.

Latimer is known for making the widespread use of electric light possible.  In addition to his engineering and draftsman work, Latimer was also a published poet and a talented painter and musician.  He also was a civil rights activist and helped teach mechanical drawings to immigrants in New York.  Latimer died on December 11, 1928, at the age of 80.


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