...we rejoice in pleasant memory at having associated with him in a great work or all peoples under a great man.
... He was of the colored race, the only one in our organization... Broadmindedness, versatility in the accomplishment of things intellectual and cultural, a linguist, a devoted husband and father...
—excerpts from Lewis Latimer's obituary by the Edison Pioneers, 1928
Lewis Latimer has brought light to millions around the world, yet he remains in the shadows. Although his collaboration with Edison and his genius as a pioneer in the electric lighting industry are well documented, they are not widely acknowledged.
Growing up in poverty, Latimer quit school and began working at the age of ten after his father, an escaped slave, deserted the family.
In 1865, after being discharged from the navy, Latimer worked as an office boy in a patent law firm. Here, fascinated by the draftsmen's work, he taught himself to draw. As his drawing talents became apparent to the firm, he was offered a position as a junior draftsman. He provided the firm with patent drawings of such high quality that he was soon promoted to chief draftsman. As his patent drawing skills improved, he was offered an important project: he was selected to assist Alexander Graham Bell with his patent application for the telephone. Latimer improved on Bell's design and the patent was issued in 1876.
Latimer then became interested in inventing and electricity. In 1880, he began to study all aspects of electricity and worked for Hiram Maxim's (of Maxim-gun fame) United States Electric Light Company, where he developed a carbon filament that improved the quality of light and increased the longevity of Thomas Edison's light bulb. In 1882, he received the patent for his invention. He supervised the installation of electric lighting systems in New York, Philadelphia and London. He also supervised the production of his carbon filament in London where, at a time when "the sun never set on The British Empire" (developed by the subjugation of dark-skinned peoples), the British workers were not inclined to taking orders from a black man. Latimer, being the consummate professional, successfully carried out his mandate.
In 1883 he began his association with Edison in the engineering division. Ultimately, he became a charter member of the elite band of inventors known as the Edison Pioneers. In 1890 he was transferred to the legal department, where his expertise was utilized as chief draftsman and expert witness.
The two giants of the electric lighting industry—Maxim-Weston (now owned by Westinghouse) and Edison General Electric Company—were in fierce competition for market supremacy. Their continuing battles were resolved with the inauguration of a patent control board, and Latimer, who had worked and developed patents for both companies, was appointed chief draftsman of the board.
He continued to invent and wrote the first book on electrical lighting, Incandescent Electric Lighting, A Practical Description of the Edison System, as well as a book of poetry.
Lewis Latimer, son of a slave and self-taught, was a luminary in many aspects of his life and played a pivotal role in the electric light industry and consequently, America's contribution to the Industrial Revolution.
Lewis Howard Latimer, Glenette Tilley Turner. Silver Burdett Press, 1991.
Lewis Latimer (Black Americans of Achievement), Winifred Latimer Norman, Lily Patterson, Nathan I. Huggins (Editor). Chelsea House Publishers, 1993.
Lewis Latimer: Creating Bright Ideas (Innovative Minds), Eleanor H. Ayer. Raintree/Steck Vaughn, 1997.
Lewis Howard Latimer
Hall of Black Achievement: Lewis Howard Latimer
Lewis Latimer - The Patents
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