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Lewis Latimer: Get to Know Why He Was More Than an Inventor

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Lewis Howard Latimer was a prolific black inventor. His contributions and expertise in inventions and securing patents were significant. Beyond that, Latimer discovered a long-lasting filament and made other inventions of his own. Additionally, he served in the United States Navy during the Civil War. He’s a man who explored several fields. Let’s look at the details of his life and work.

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Lewis Latimer’s Early Life

Lewis Latimer, the Inventor. Source: Wikimedia licensed by Public domain

Lewis Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on September 4 1848, to Rebecca Latimer and George Latimer. Although his parents escaped slavery, Latimer’s father was captured again after a former employee spotted and reported him.

George faced trial and was defended by William Lloyd Garrison and former slave Frederick Douglas after which activists paid for his freedom. This wasn’t the end of the hardship Lewis’ father experienced. He disappeared after the Dred Scott decision that outlined slaves couldn’t pay for their freedom.

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Lewis Latimer’s Career

Lewis Latimer Black Inventor. Video Credit: Deeper Than Read

Lewis helped his mother support the rest of his family. At the age of 15, he falsified his age and enlisted in the Union Navy. After his two-year service, he became the secretary and adjutant in the Grand Army of the Republic. In 1865, he received an honorable discharge and returned to Boston, and the journey to his patent and invention career began.

Latimer was an office assistant at Crossby & Gould patent law firm. He studied its drafters and learnt how to mechanically draw and draft. This landed him in the positions of drafter and later, head drafter.

In 1873, Latimer got married to Mary Wilson and had two children, Louise Rebecca and Emma Jeanette, and were active members of the Unitarian Church.

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Telephone Invention

Lewis Latimer’s inventions. Video Credit: History On The Go

In 1874, while still working in the firm, Latimer contributed to the improved railroad car bathroom compartments. In his next project, he worked with Alexander Graham Bell in patenting the telephone. On February 14 1876, he successfully filed a patent application for Bell’s design.

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Light Bulb

He moved on from his job at Crosby & Gould and was hired by a U.S. Electric Lightning & Company. The owner Hiram Maxim, was Edison’s competitor and was keen on improving his invention of the light bulb.

Edison’s light bulb didn’t have a long lifespan, so he brought Lewis Latimer to help him work on incandescent lighting. He wanted to prevent the carbon from breaking up and Latimer invented the carbon-filament that gave the bulb longevity.

He worked on it and also received more projects, helping cities like Montreal, New York City, London and Philadelphia install their lighting system. Also, he set up a department, Maxim-Weston Electric Light Company in London.

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Partnering with Edison

The light bulb invention. Video Credit: Derek Minor

In 1884, Lewis Latimer collaborated with Thomas Edison in his company, Edison Electric Light Company. He worked with his legal team as a patent and draft specialist, helping them to search for patent infringements, to strengthen his lawsuit. He testified on behalf of Edison, defending his light bulb design and helping him win the case. 

Latimer was the only black person in the Edison Pioneers. In 1890, Latimer co-authored the book “Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.”

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Other Inventions

Innovation was part of Lewis Latimer so even after he left his previous jobs, he made his own inventions. In 1894, he made a safety elevator, which was an improvement on the existing ones. Latimer secured patents for coats, umbrellas and hats’ racks. Later, he developed a cooling and disinfectant apparatus.

Away from his inventing pursuits, Latimer played the flute and wrote poetry and plays. He shared his mechanical drawing and English with recent immigrants at the Henry Street Settlement in New York. Also, he was highly involved in Civil War veteran groups.

Death and Legacy

Lewis Latimer died on December 11, 1928 in New York. Edison commemorated him as a board-minded, intellectual, cultural and versatile human being. As an esteemed member of the Edison Pioneers, his figure as an African American was important in disrupting the stereotypes surrounding black people.

In 1929, Lewis Latimer was honored at the ‘Lights Golden Jubilee’ in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the light bulb invention.

In 1968, a New York public school known as the PS 56 Lewis Latimer School recognized his achievements. 

Lewis Latimer was an inventor and patent draftsman who contributed to two of the most significant inventions of his time, the telephone and the light bulb. What makes his achievements even more impressive is the fact that he was self-taught. It was difficult for black people to receive formal education at the time, but that didn’t stop him.

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