Lewis Howard Latimer

Lewis LatimerLewis Latimer
Lewis Howard Latimer
Born: September 4, 1848
Died: December 11, 1928
Birthplace: Chelsea, Massachusetts

Lewis Howard Latimer is considered a "Renaissance man," because of his prowess as an inventor-engineer, both electrical and mechanical, as well as for his talents as a poet, playwright and visual artist. It was Latimer’s work that helped to make possible the widespread use of electric lights -- quite an accomplishment for this son of runaway slaves.

Lewis Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848, six years after his parents, George and Rebecca Latimer, ran away from slavery in Virginia, determined that their children were to be born on free soil. Because of his light complexion, George was able to pose as a plantation owner with the darker-skinned Rebecca as his slave. However, shortly after arriving in Boston, Massachusetts, he was recognized as a fugitive and jailed while his wife was taken to a safe hiding place. The arrest was protested vigorously by the community, most notably by Frederick Douglass, and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who spoke forcefully on George’s behalf. The trial and the attempts to recapture George and return him to Virginia caused considerable agitation in Boston. Though when the trial judge ruled that Latimer still belonged to his Virginia owner, it was an African American minister who paid $400 for his release. As a freeman, George worked as a barber, paper-hanger and other odd jobs to support his wife, three sons, and one daughter.

Lewis Latimer, the youngest child, attended grammar school and was an excellent student who loved to read and draw. Most of his time, though, was spent working with his father, which was typical of children in the 19th century. In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that a slave named Dred Scott could not be considered a free man although he had lived in a free state. George Latimer disappeared shortly after the decision became known. Because he had no official papers to prove he was a free man, he possibly feared for his safety and that of his family.

Lewis the Draftsman

With his father gone and his mother struggling to keep the family together, Lewis joined the U.S. Navy in 1864 when he was sixteen years old. When the Civil War ended Latimer was honorably discharged. He returned to Boston where he secured a job as an office boy in the Crosby and Gould patent law firm, a company that specialized in helping inventors protect their patents. By closely observing draftsmen at work and reading books on the subject, Latimer taught himself mechanical drawing. He learned to skillfully use the vital tools of the trade, such as T squares, triangles, compasses, and rulers, and mastered the art of drawing to scale. Since all of the drawings were done by hand and in ink, it was very important that a draftsman not make mistakes. Latimer's drawings in this medium were as beautiful as works of art. After several months of studying and hard work, Latimer was promoted from office boy, earning a salary of $3.00 per week, to draftsman at $20.00.

Alexander Graham Bell "calls" on Latimer

In the period immediately following the Civil War, important scientific advances occurred in America. There was an explosion of inventions and new uses of technology, and inventors were securing thousands of patents in growing industries. While working at the Boston firm, Latimer met Alexander Graham Bell who hired him to draw the plans for a new invention, the telephone. Bell was in a race to have his invention patented before anyone else registered a similar device. By working with him late at night, Latimer was able to provide Bell with the blueprints and expertise in submitting applications that allowed him to file his telephone patent on February 14, 1876, just hours earlier than that of a rival inventor.

The Maxim Man

In 1880 Latimer began work as a mechanical draftsman for Hiram Maxim, an inventor and founder of the U.S. Electric Lighting Company in Brooklyn, N.Y. In his new job, Latimer became familiar with the field of electric incandescent lighting, an area in which there was fierce competition to secure patents. In addition to his work with light bulbs and lamps, he went to U.S. cities and abroad supervising installation and production of Maxim equipment.

One of "Edison’s Pioneers"

In 1884 he was invited to work for Maxim's arch rival, Thomas Alva Edison, in New York. An expert electrical engineer, Latimer's work for Edison was critical for the following reasons: his thorough knowledge of electric lighting and power guided Edison through the process of filing patent forms properly at the U.S. Patent Office, protecting the company from infringements of his inventions; Latimer was also in charge of the company library, collecting information from around the world, translating data in French and German to protect the company from European challenges. He became Edison's patent investigator and expert witness in cases against persons trying to benefit from Edison's inventions without legal permission.

Edison encouraged Latimer to write the book, Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System. Published in 1890, it was extremely popular as it explained how an incandescent lamp produces light in an easy-to-understand manner (making Latimer one of the first "technical writers."). On February 11, 1918, Latimer became one of the 28 charter members of the Edison Pioneers, the only African American in this prestigious, highly selective group. .

Renaissance Man

After leaving Edison's employ, Latimer worked for a patent consultant firm until 1922 when failing eyesight caused an end to his career. His health began to fail following the death of his beloved wife Mary Wilson Latimer in 1924. To cheer and encourage him to carry on, his children, two daughters, had a book of his poems printed in 1925 in honor of his 77th birthday. The poems are beautifully sensitive, and complement Latimer's designation as a "Renaissance Man" who painted, played the flute, wrote poetry and plays.

Active in the Unitarian Church, Latimer also found time to teach mechanical engineering, drawing and English to new immigrants at the Henry Street Settlement House. He had remained extremely patriotic, participating as an officer of the famed Civil War Veterans' organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). In addition, he condoned and participated in civil rights activities of his era. On December 11, 1928, Lewis Howard Latimer died, leaving a remarkable legacy. His name will be forever associated with two of the most revolutionary inventions of all time: the incandescent electric light bulb and the telephone.

Patents Issued:

Process of manufacturing carbons
Patent No. 252,386
Date: Tuesday, January 17, 1882

Apparatus for cooling and disinfecting
Patent No. 334,078
Date: Tuesday, January 12, 1886

Locking rack for hats, coats, and umbrellas
Patent No. 557, 076
Date: Tuesday, March 24, 1896

Lamp fixture
Patent No. 968,787
Date: Tuesday, August 30, 1910 Latimer, Lewis Howard and Brown, Charles W.

Water closets (toilets) for railway cars
Patent No. 147,363
Date: Tuesday, February 10, 1874

Latimer, Lewis Howard and Nichols, Joseph V.
Electric lamp
Patent No. 247,097
Date: Tuesday, September 13, 1881

Latimer, Lewis Howard and Tregoning, John
Globe supporter for electric lamps
Patent No. 255,212
Date: Tuesday, March 21, 1882


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