Lewis Howard Latimer


Lewis Howard Latimer led the way in the development of the electric light bulb and was the only black member of the Edison Pioneers, a group of eminent scientists and inventors who worked with Thomas Edison.

Latimer’s father was a former slave, born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1848, and raised in Boston. At the age of sixteen he enlisted in the Navy and served as a cabin boy on the USS Massasoit for the remainder of the Civil War. In 1865, after receiving an honourable discharge, he returned to Boston to seek work. His skill in mechanical drawing enabled him to secure a position with Crosby and Gould, a firm of patent solicitors. Latimer found the work of the patent draftsmen fascinating and he taught himself draftsmanship skills. Having gained enough confidence, he asked to be allowed so submit some drawings. This request was grudgingly granted, but his 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 recognised the need for a highly skilled draftsman to prepare blueprints for his new invention, the telephone. Bell went to Crosby and Gould, and Latimer was given the assignment to draw the plans for Bells 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 US Electric Lighting Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Although electricity was in its infancy, Latimer perceived it to be the wave of the future. He continued 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 to be 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 US 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 patents 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 Lightning.

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 organisations, and taught recent immigrants mechanical drawing and the English language in a New York City community centre. Lewis Latimer’s death in 1928 was mourned the world over. In honour 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.