Latimer, Lewis Howard

views updated

Latimer, Lewis Howard

September 4, 1848
December 11, 1928

Inventor Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, the son of runaway slaves from Virginia. In his youth Latimer worked at a variety of odd jobs, including selling copies of William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator, sweeping up in his father's barbershop, hanging paper, and waiting tables. In 1863 he joined the Union navy and worked as a cabin boy aboard the U.S.S. Massasoit. He served on the James River in Virginia until the end of the war in 1865.

After the war Latimer returned to Boston, where in 1871 he was hired by patent lawyers Crosby and Gould. Although hired as an office boy, he became an expert mechanical drafter. He also tried his hand at inventing, and on February 10, 1874, he patented a pivot bottom for a water closet for railroad cars. The inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, retained Crosby and Gould to handle his patent application, and Latimer helped sketch the drawings for Bell's 1876 patent.

In 1880 Latimer was hired by inventor Hiram Maxim's United States Electric Lighting Company in

Bridgeport, Connecticut. Maxim was a competitor of Thomas A. Edison, who had patented the incandescent light bulb in 1879. In 1881 Latimer and his colleague Joseph V. Nichols shared a patent for an electric lamp. Latimer's most important invention, patented in 1882, was a carbon filament that increased the brightness and longevity of the lightbulb. Because of its decreased costs, the resulting product made electric lighting more accessible. Latimer also invented a locking rack for hats, coats, and umbrellas in 1896.

From 1880 to 1882 Latimer oversaw the establishment of factories for U.S. Electric's production of the filaments and the installation of electric-light systems in New York City and Philadelphia and later in London. After his return from Britain, he worked for firms in the New York area until he joined the Edison Electric Light Company in 1884. (Edison Electric soon bought out other companies to form General Electric.) There he served as an engineer, chief draftsman, and an expert witness for Edison in patent infringement lawsuits. Latimer was author of Incandescent Electric Lighting (1896), one of the first textbooks on electric lighting. When General Electric and Westinghouse decided that year to pool patents, they created the Board of Patent Control to monitor patent disputes and appointed Latimer to the board. He used his drafting techniques and knowledge of patent law in this capacity until 1911, when the board was disbanded. He then did patent law consulting with the New York firm of Hammer & Schwarz.

Latimer moved to Flushing, New York, in the late nineteenth century and was active in New York City politics and civil rights issues. In 1902 he circulated a petition to New York City Mayor Seth Low, expressing concern about the lack of African-American representation on the school board. He also taught English and mechanical drawing to immigrants at the Henry Street Settlement in 1906. In 1918 Latimer became a charter member of the Edison Pioneers, an honorary group of scientists who had worked for Thomas Edison's laboratories. Latimer's booklet, Poems of Love and Life, was privately published by his friends on his seventy-fifth birthday in 1925. Latimer died in Flushing in 1928. On May 10, 1968, a public school in Brooklyn was named in his honor.

See also Inventors and Inventions; Patents and Inventions


Brodie, James Michael. Created Equal: The Lives and Ideas of Black American Inventors. New York: William Morrow, 1993.

Fouche, Rayvon. Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Haber, Louis. Black Pioneers of Science and Invention. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970.

Hayden, Robert C. Eight Black American Inventors. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1972.

Turner, Glennette Tilley. Lewis Howard Latimer. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

allison x. miller (1996)

kevin parker (1996)
Updated bibliography

About this article

Latimer, Lewis Howard

Updated About content Print Article