The American contributions of Lewis Howard Latimer

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Carlos Thomas
  • 90th Missile Security Forces Squadron
Observed each February, Black History Month is an important tradition that highlights the significant roles African-Americans have played in the shaping of U.S. history. It is a tradition that dates back to 1915, when Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. One of the many African-Americans who helped paved the way for civil rights and had an impact in the shaping of U.S. history was Lewis Howard Latimer. Born Sept. 4, 1848, in Chelsea, Mass., Latimer, the youngest of four children, was born to George and Rebecca Latimer, who escaped from slavery in Virginia six years before his birth. Captured in Boston and brought to trial as a fugitive, George Latimer was defended by abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. He was eventually able to purchase his freedom, with the help of a local minister, and began raising a family with Rebecca in nearby Chelsea. George disappeared shortly after the Dred Scott decision in 1857, possibly fearing a return to slavery and the South.

Lewis Latimer enlisted in the Union Navy at the age of 15 by forging the age on his birth certificate. Upon the completion of his military service, Lewis Latimer returned to Boston, Mass., where he was employed by the patent solicitors, Crosby and Gould. While working with Crosby and Gould, Lewis began studying drafting and eventually became the head draftsmen for his company. During his employment with Crosby and Gould, Latimer drafted the patent drawings for Alexander Graham Bell's patent application for the telephone, spending long nights with the inventor. Bell rushed his patent application to the patent office mere hours ahead of the competition and won the patent rights to the telephone with the help of Latimer.

Not long after working for Crosby and Gould, Latimer sought greener pastures by working for Hiram S. Maxim (founder of the U.S. Electric Light Company of Bridgeport, Conn., and the inventor of the Maxim machine gun). Maxim was considered major competition in the race to create the most efficient and longer lasting light bulb against Thomas Edison, the primary inventor of the light bulb. Maxim hired Lewis Latimer as an assistant manager and draftsman. Latimer's talent for drafting and his creative genius led him to invent a method of making carbon filaments for the Maxim electric incandescent lamp. Other than the improvement on the filament Latimer also had numerous inventions both patented and unpatented. His patented inventions included a new support for arc lights, an improvement to Maxim's method of manufacturing filaments for incandescent bulbs and a new way to attach the carbonized filament to the platinum wires that brought electricity into the bulb from the base. In 1881, he supervised the installation of the electric lights in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal and London.

Unfortunately, greener pastures were not found while Latimer worked for U.S. Electric Light Company due to conflicting interests between him and new management, but he continued his search when he began working with Thomas Edison in 1884. Edison hired Latimer as a draftsman and as such was the star witness in Edison's infringement suits. Lewis Latimer was the only African-American member of the twenty-four "Edison Principles," Thomas Edison's engineering division of the Edison Company. Latimer also co-authored a book on electricity published in 1890 called, "Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System."

Latimer was considered a jack of all trades. He was an inventor, draftsman, engineer, author, poet, musician and, at the same time, a devoted family man and philanthropist. He showed many African-Americans that skin color should never be a dream deterrent and all a dream takes to be fulfilled is belief in one's self and opportunity. Latimer was an inventor, mentor and motivator to those in his time and ours, and for that we thank him.

*Information from articles by The Black Inventor On-Line Museum, the University of California - Irvine and the Smithsonian and the biography, Lewis Howard Latimore: A Black Inventor, were used in this article.