Lewis Howard Latimer was born to George and Rebecca Latimer on 4 September 1848, the youngest of four children (three boys and one girl). He attended only grade school, and the remainder of his education was self-taught. At the age of 10 he began working with his father in order to support the family. He has a fabulous appetite for reading, drawing, and learning in general.
The son of a former slave, Latimer had bitter feelings about slavery. At the age of 15, he falsified the date on his birth certificate and enlisted in the Union Navy during the Civil War. After receiving an honorable discharge, Latimer returned to Boston. His first job was as an office boy with Crosly and Gage, a well-known Boston patent law firm. He taught himself drafting and, after recognizing his talents, the firm promoted him to draftsman. One of his assignments was to make the initial drawings for one of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patents.
In 1880, Herman Maxim, Chief Engineer and Electrician for the United States Lighting Company, who was very impressed with Latimer’s talents as a draftsman, hired him. Latimer took this opportunity to learn about the electric industry. During his tenure with Maxim, he invented an electric lamp with a carbon filament (1881). He traveled to London to advise the English on setting up a lamp factory.
In 1885 he began his association with Thomas Edison, serving as an engineer, chief draftsman, and expert witness on the Board of Patent Control in gathering evidence against the infringement of patents held by General Electric and Westinghouse. He was named an Edison Pioneer in 1918, an elite group of men who worked for Edison.
Latimer married Mary Wilson on 10 December 1873, and they had two children, Emma Jeannette, born in 1883, and Louise Rebecca, born in 1890. Throughout his life, Latimer was also interested in poetry, the arts, and civil rights.
Notable Patents and Contributions
- Water closet for railroad cars (1874)
- Improvement to electric lamp (1881)
- Process for manufacturing carbon filament (1882)
- Arc light globe support (1882)
- Apparatus for cooling and disinfecting (1886)
- Device for locking hats, coats and umbrellas on hanging racks (1895)
- Lamp fixture (1910)
In his patent role, he was responsible for preparing the mechanical drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s patent application for his telephone. Thomas Edison took note of his work for Bell and on the light bulb and hired him in 1884. Latimer, in fact, holds the distinction of being the only African American member of the Edison Pioneers, the original engineering division of the Edison Company.
He continued to work on electric lighting, and in 1890 published Incandescent Electric Lighting, a technical engineering book that became the standard guide for lighting engineers.
He retired in 1924 at the age of 75. He passed away at his home in Flushing, New York on 11 November 1928, at the age of 80. When Latimer died, the Edison Pioneers attributed his “important inventions”-- he held eight U.S. patents-- to a “keen perception of the potential of the electric light and kindred industries.” The Edison Pioneers published an obituary that included the following testimonial:
“He was of the colored race, the only one in our organization, and was one of those to respond to the initial call that led to the formation of the Edison Pioneers, January 24th 1918. Broadmindedness, versatility in the accomplishment of things intellectual and cultural, a linguist, a devoted husband and father, all were characteristic of him, and his genial presence will be missed from our gatherings.”
1) Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson.
Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
2) Black Pioneers of Science and Invention.
Louis Haber. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970.
3) Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern.
Ivan Van Sertima. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transition Books, 1984.
4) Eight Black American Inventors.
Robert C. Hayden. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1972.
5) Hidden Contributors: Black Scientists and Inventors in America.
Aaron E. Klein. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1971.