Lewis Latimer (Sept. 4, 1848–Dec. 11, 1928) is considered one of the most important Black inventors for the number of inventions he produced and patents he secured, but also for the importance of his best-known discovery: a longer-lasting filament for the electric light. He also helped Alexander Graham Bell obtain the patent for the first telephone. Latimer was in great demand for his expertise later in his career as electric light spread across the country. Indeed, without Latimer's help and expertise, Thomas Edison may not have even received a patent for his light bulb. Yet, possibly due to the whitewashing of history, Latimer is not well remembered today for his many lasting accomplishments.
Lewis Latimer was born on Sept.4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He was the youngest of four children born to George Latimer, a paperhanger, and Rebecca Smith Latimer, who both escaped enslavement. His parents had fled from Virginia in 1842 by hiding beneath the deck of a northbound ship, but his father was recognized in Boston by a former employee of their enslaver. George Latimer was arrested and brought to trial, where he was defended by noted 19th-century North American Black activist Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Eventually, a group of activists paid $400 for his freedom.
George Latimer disappeared shortly after the Dred Scott decision of 1857, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Scott, an enslaved man, couldn't sue for his freedom. Possibly fearing a return to enslavement, Latimer went underground. It was a great hardship for the rest of the Latimer family.
Lewis Latimer worked to help support his mother and siblings. Then, In 1864, at age 15, Latimer lied about his age in order to enlist in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. Latimer was assigned to the gunboat USS Massasoit and received an honorable discharge on July 3, 1865. He returned to Boston and took a position as an office assistant with the patent law firm Crosby & Gould.
Latimer taught himself mechanical drawing and drafting by observing drafters at the firm. Recognizing his talent and promise, the partners promoted him to drafter and, eventually, head drafter. During this time, he married Mary Wilson in November 1873. The couple had two daughters, Emma Jeanette and Louise Rebecca.
In 1874, while at the firm, Latimer co-invented an improvement to the bathroom compartment of trains. Two years later, he was sought out as a drafter by an instructor of children who were hard of hearing; the man wanted drawings for a patent application on a device he had created. The instructor was Alexander Graham Bell, and the device was the telephone.
Working late into the evenings, Latimer labored to complete the patent application. It was submitted on Feb. 14, 1876, just hours before another application was made for a similar device. With Latimer's help, Bell won the patent rights to the telephone.
Latimer and Maxim
In 1880, after relocating to Bridgeport, Connecticut, Latimer was hired as assistant manager and drafter for the U.S. Electric Lighting Co., which was owned by Hiram Maxim. Maxim was the chief competitor of Edison, who had invented the electric light. Edison’s light consisted of a nearly airless glass bulb surrounding a carbon wire filament, typically made from bamboo, paper, or thread. When electricity ran through the filament, it became so hot that it literally glowed.
Maxim hoped to improve on Edison’s light bulb by focusing on its main weakness: its brief life span, typically only a few days. Latimer set out to make a longer-lasting light bulb. He developed a way to encase the filament in a cardboard envelope that prevented the carbon from breaking up, giving the bulbs a much longer life while making them less expensive and more efficient.
Latimer’s expertise had become well known, and he was sought after to continue to improve on incandescent lighting as well as arc lighting. As more major cities began wiring their roadways for electric lighting, Latimer was selected to lead several planning teams. He helped install the first electric plants in Philadelphia, New York City, and Montreal. He also oversaw the installation of lighting in railroad stations, government buildings, and major thoroughfares in Canada, New England, and London.
Latimer was in charge of setting up an incandescent lamp department for the Maxim-Weston Electric Light Company in London. As part of this role, he supervised the production of his own invention of carbon filaments. Yet it was in London that Latimer suffered some of the greatest discrimination he faced during his career because English businessmen there were not used—or receptive—to being directed by a Black man. Of the experience, Latimer wrote in his diary:
"In London, I was in hot water from the day I came until I returned."
Still, Latimer succeeded in setting up the division.
Collaboration With Edison
Latimer started working for Edison in 1884 and became involved in Edison's infringement lawsuits. He worked in the legal department of the Edison Electric Light Co. as the chief drafter and patent specialist. He drafted sketches and documents related to Edison patents, looked over plants in search of patent infringements, carried out patent searches, and testified in court on Edison’s behalf. More often than not, Latimer's expert testimony helped Edison win his legal patent court fights—in such high esteem did the courts hold Latimer's testimony.
He never worked in any of Edison's labs, but he was the only Black member of a group known as the "Edison Pioneers," men who had worked closely with the inventor in his early years. Latimer also co-authored a book on electricity published in 1890 called "Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System."
In subsequent years, Latimer continued to innovate. In 1894, he created a safety elevator, a vast improvement on existing elevators. Then he obtained a patent for “Locking Racks for Hats, Coats, and Umbrellas” that was used in restaurants, resorts, and office buildings. He also developed a method for making rooms more hygienic and climate-controlled, named an “Apparatus for Cooling and Disinfecting.”
Latimer died on Dec. 11, 1928, in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York. His wife Mary had died four years earlier.
Despite racism and discrimination and with unequal access to education and opportunity, Latimer played a major role in the development of two products that greatly impacted the lives of Americans: the light bulb and the telephone. The fact that he was a Black American born in the 19th century made his many successes even more impressive.
Upon his death, the Edison Pioneers honored his memory with these words:
"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 24, 1918. Broad-mindedness, 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.
"Mr. Latimer was a full member, and an esteemed one, of the Edison Pioneers."
On Nov. 9, 1929, Latimer was among the figures honored at the "Light's Golden Jubilee," an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of Edison's invention of the light bulb, held in Dearborn, Michigan. Yet in 1954, at an event marking the 75th anniversary of the invention of the light bulb, "no mention was made of the role played by Lewis Latimer," wrote Louis Haber in his book, "Black Pioneers of Science and Invention," who added, "Was the only black member of the Edison Pioneers already forgotten?" No reason has been given for Latimer's exclusion from the 75th-anniversary event, but the occasion did take place during the Jim Crow era, a period when federal, state, and local laws barred Black Americans from being full citizens.
Latimer was honored on May 10, 1968, when a public school in Brooklyn, New York—now known as the PS 56 Lewis Latimer School —was dedicated in his honor. During the ceremony, a painting of Latimer was presented to his grandson, Gerald Norman, Sr., who was at the event, which as also attended by Latimer's granddaughter, Winifred Latimer Norman. The New York State Legislature, the president of the Borough of Brooklyn, and a member of the New York City Board of Education also paid tribute to Latimer.