Latimer, Lewis H.
Born September 4, 1848 (Chelsea, Massachusetts)
Died December 11, 1928 (Flushing, New York)
Lewis H. Latimer had an honored career as an inventor, skilled mechanical draftsperson, and patent expert. Patents are legal documents giving an inventor the exclusive right to make, use, or sell an invention for a certain term of years. Latimer worked with Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922; see entry) in preparing the drawings that were important to Bell's patent application for the telephone and spent much of his later career with the firm founded by Thomas Edison (1847–1931; see entry). Latimer's achievements were even more remarkable because he was an African American executive and technical expert in the United States before the civil rights movement, when minorities who attained such prominence were rare.
"Like the light of the sun, it beautifies all things on which it shines, and is no less welcome in the palace than in the humblest home."
Lewis Latimer on Thomas Edison's electric lamp.
Son of escaped slaves
Latimer was born on September 4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. His parents, George and Rebecca, had settled there after fleeing a Virginia plantation in the Norfolk area six years earlier. They had stowed away on a Boston-bound ship, and when they emerged on board, Latimer's light-skinned father posed as a slave owner and the master of Rebecca Latimer for the rest of the journey. The Virginia plantation owner, however, learned of their whereabouts and came to Boston to bring them back. Abolitionists (antislavery activists) took up their cause and hid Rebecca, but George was jailed and a Massachusetts court ruled that the owner had the right to take him back. A standoff outside the jail that lasted nearly a month ended when abolitionists raised the money to buy George's freedom from the master. The Latimers' situation attracted widespread attention and helped spur the passage of a state law that prohibited Massachusetts authorities from aiding in the capture of fugitive slaves from the Southern states.
Latimer did well at Phillips Grammar School in Boston and even skipped a grade, but his formal education ended at the age of ten. He went to work to support the family, helping his father, who worked as a barber, and selling copies of the Liberator, the newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), a noted abolitionist. He also assisted his father in a second line of work, paperhanging (the application of wallpaper), which was a trade that would later prove useful. The family's financial situation worsened when George abandoned the household, and Rebecca went to work on an ocean liner. She sent her youngest son to live with a farm family, but Latimer hated the endless, dirty chores that farm life required. He and another boy managed to escape and make their way back to Boston. Latimer found a job waiting tables and then ran errands for a law firm.
In 1864, in the final year of the American Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery), the sixteen-year-old Latimer enlisted in the Union Navy. He served aboard the U.S.S. Massasoit on the James River in Virginia, and when the war ended he returned to Boston once again. In 1871 he was hired as an assistant in the office of two patent lawyers, Crosby and Gould. The firm also employed a staff of draftsmen, who created the detailed drawings necessary for patent applications. Latimer bought a secondhand book on mechanical drafting and taught himself the subject in his spare time. He convinced one of the draftsmen at the office to let him try to do a drawing one day, and his work was so good that he was soon being given regular assignments. Crosby and Gould eventually made him the firm's head draftsman.
Worked with Alexander Graham Bell
Latimer's drawings for the ideas of others gave him his own ideas for inventions. With a friend, W. C. Brown, he devised a "Water Closet for Railway Cars," which was an improved version of the toilet then in use aboard trains, and it was patented in February 1874. In early 1876 Latimer was enlisted to work with Alexander Graham Bell, a Scottish immigrant who ran a Boston school for the deaf. Bell had hired Crosby and Gould to handle the paperwork for a new device that had come out of his efforts to teach the hearing-impaired to speak. Bell's primary job and commitment to his students meant that he could only sit down with Latimer later in the evening to describe the details of his invention. "I was obliged to stay at the office until after 9 p.m. when he was free from his night classes, to get my instructions from him, as to how I was to make the drawings for the application for a patent upon the telephone," Latimer recalled years later, according to Nathan Aaseng in Black Inventors. Latimer's dedication to his work helped Bell's patent for the telephone beat the submission of another inventor, Elisha Gray (1835–1901), by just four hours. Both were filed at the U.S. Patent Office on the same day, and if Latimer had made any mistake in his drawings, this would have allowed Gray to win the telephone patent.
Latimer took a job at another law firm. Unfortunately, the firm's financial situation worsened, and he found himself out of work. By then he had married, and he and his wife, Mary, moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he worked as a paperhanger for a time. Finally he found a part-time job as a draftsman in a machine shop and through that met Hiram S. Maxim (1840–1916) in 1880. An inventor himself, Maxim was the founder of a Bridgeport company, U.S. Electric Lighting, and would later be known for creating the first fully automatic machine gun. Maxim was impressed by Latimer's drawing skills, and by the fact he had been with Crosby and Gould, where Maxim had also once worked. He immediately hired Latimer as a draftsman, and shortly after that the company moved its operations from Bridgeport to the New York City area.
U.S. Electric was a rival of Thomas Edison's New Jersey firm. Edison held the patent for his 1879 invention, a light bulb with a carbon fiber inside an airless vacuum tube. The carbon fiber, when charged, made the bulb give off a steady glow, and it was a vast step forward for the possibility of easy, cheap, and safe lighting. An improved filament (a thin conductor made to glow by the passage of an electrical current) was necessary to help the light bulb become a mass-produced item, however, and U.S. Electric was one of the companies working to come up with a solution to that.
A better way to make a bulb
Latimer was fascinated by the idea of electrical lighting and went to work on finding a better filament. He began studying the subjects of chemistry and electrical engineering in his spare time and tried out various manufacturing processes during his workdays at U.S. Electric. The process for making the filament involved wood, cotton, and carbon, and he undertook numerous trial-and-error experiments to come up with a better combination. He finally devised a method that involved cellulose (a chemical combination found in the cell walls of plants) and carbon, and the result was a much longer-lasting filament. He filed the necessary patent application paperwork for "Process of Manufacturing Carbons" in February 1881, and it was granted in January 1882. His filament became significant in the evolution of electric lighting from something that only the rich could afford to something cheap to produce and affordable for almost anyone.
Latimer and a colleague, Joseph V. Nichols, also devised a new way to connect the carbon filament to the wiring in a lamp, and they received a patent for that as well. Since both projects had been done at Maxim's company, however, the two men did not own the exclusive rights or make any money from their ideas. But Latimer did become the company's chief engineer and traveled to its newly established factories to supervise the setup of the filament manufacturing process. He also devised a circuitry for street lamp lighting that allowed the whole system to stay lit even when one of the bulbs burned out. The innovation became standard in streetlight installations in New York City, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and even London, England, and Maxim sent Latimer to ensure the processes went smoothly. "Electrical measurements had not then been invented and all our work was by guess," Latimer wrote in his logbooks, according to the Web site Blueprint for Change: The Life and Times of Lewis H. Latimer. "Office bell wire was the only kind on the market, and our method of figureing [sic] was that it was a good guess that that size wire would carry a certain number of lamps without dangerous heating. A number of mysterious [sic] fires about this time were probably the fruit of our ignorance."
Latimer even learned French so that he could work more effectively with municipal engineers in Montreal, Canada, on their system. In London, however, he encountered prejudice because of his skin color. He wrote about this in the same logbooks. "The prevailing motif [theme] seemed to be humility of the workman and the attitude that nothing that I can do can repay you for permitting me to earn an honest living," he remarked about his London assignment. "My assistant and myself were in hot water from the first moment to the end of my engagement, and as we were incapable of assuming a humility we could not feel, there was a continual effort to discount us."
Later career achievements
It was Latimer's understanding of the patent application process that brought him to the attention of Thomas Edison, who hired him in 1884 as a draftsman for the Edison General Electric Light Company in New York City. At the time Edison's firm was engaged in numerous patent-infringement (violation) lawsuits, and Latimer became a key player in those battles. Once he was promoted to the position of associate in the company's legal department, Latimer investigated the work of other electrical firms that were asking the courts to overturn Edison's patent rights. He prepared drawings for the teams of lawyers, served as an expert witness in court testimony, and proved particularly useful in contradicting the claims of his former boss, Maxim. Meanwhile, he continued to work on his own inventions. Among these was the Latimer Lamp, an improvement on Edison's lamp that came into wide use for a few years, as well as an instrument for cooling and disinfecting rooms that was an early version of the air conditioner.
After most of the Edison patent issues had been settled, Latimer authored a classic early textbook, Incandescent Electric Lighting, which was published in 1890. It was one of the first books to describe the subject in detail in the decade since so many improvements had been made, and it helped train a generation of new electrical engineers. Latimer's text provided information based solely on the Edison lighting system, which guaranteed the company's dominance in the industry for many years to come. Two years later the firm united all its properties and became General Electric.
In 1896 Latimer was named to the Board of Patent Control, which had been created by General Electric and the Westinghouse Company, a leading competitor. The board's task was to pool the patents of both companies in electrical systems. Latimer would serve on the board for the next fifteen years, until it was dissolved. He also taught mechanical drafting at the Henry Street Settlement, a well-respected community help center for the poor and immigrants in the Manhattan area of New York City. After retiring from General Electric in 1911, Latimer worked as a consultant for a New York law firm, Hammer & Schwarz, on patent law. But his eyesight began to fail, and he was forced to give up work on his own inventions. In 1918 he became a founding member of the Edison Pioneers, an elite group of twenty-eight Edison employees who had been instrumental in making the company an impressively innovative one. He was the sole minority member.
Latimer spent his retirement years in Flushing, a section of Queens, New York. A founder of the Flushing Unitarian Church, he was also an accomplished painter and poet and played the flute and violin. He corresponded with several notable African Americans of his era, among them abolitionist Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895), educator Booker T. Washington (1856–1915; see entry), and Richard Greener (1844–1922), the first black graduate of Harvard University. In 1902 Latimer launched a petition drive to bring more minority representation to the New York City school board.
Latimer and his wife had two daughters, Emma Jeannette and Louise. He suffered a stroke in 1924, the same year his wife died, but many of the love poems he wrote to Mary were published in booklet form by his friends the following year as a gift for him on his seventy-fifth birthday. He died on December 11, 1928. In 1968 a public school in Brooklyn, New York, was named in his honor.
For More Information
Aaseng, Nathan. Black Inventors. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1997.
Turner, Glennette Tilley. Lewis Howard Latimer. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.
Fouche, Rayvon. "Lighting Made Easy." Footsteps (January-February 2005): p. 8.
"Edison's Miracle of Light." PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/edison/filmmore/index.html (accessed on July 7, 2005).
Singer, Bayla. Inventing a Better Life: Latimer's Technical Career, 1880–1928. http://edison.rutgers.edu/latimer/invtlife.htm (accessed on July 7, 2005).
Blueprint for Change: The Life and Times of Lewis H. Latimer. http://www.queenslibrary.org/gallery/latimer/ (accessed on July 7, 2005).