Lewis H. Latimer
Latimer, Lewis H. 1848–1928
Lewis H. Latimer 1848–1928
Lewis H. Latimer enjoyed a long career in the early years of the electrical industry as a draftsman, engineer, and contributor of several noteworthy inventions to the development of electrical illumination. He was one of the many ingenious engineers who added to and perfected the advances made in electrical lighting in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, which are often attributed to the genius of inventor Thomas Alva Edison. While Edison was the undisputed leader in electricity for many years, there were scores of other inventors like Lewis Latimer at work on the many refinements needed to make electrical illumination a reality for cities throughout the world.
Lewis Howard Latimer was born on September 4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. His father, George A. Latimer, was a freed slave who deserted his wife and family when Lewis was approximately ten years old, forcing the youngster to forego his formal education in order to help his mother and four siblings survive. After working a number of jobs as a boy, Latimer enlisted in the Union navy in 1864 at the age of 16 to serve in the Civil War. He was assigned to the gun boat U.S.S. Massasoit under Commander Richard T. Renshaw and carried out his duties in an honorable fashion. Latimer later became a lieutenant in the 4th Battalion of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia as well.
After the end of the war Latimer secured employment as an office boy in the firm of Crosby and Gould, Boston patent attorneys. There he became interested in the craft of mechanical drawing, necessary for patent applications, and set himself to the study of drafting in his spare hours. With part of his meager salary Latimer was able to buy a secondhand set of drafting tools and with the help of library textbooks taught himself well enough to be hired by his employers as a journeyman draftsman.
During the next decade Latimer proved so skillful that he was eventually elevated to the position of chief draftsman for Crosby and Gould, where he was given responsibility for perfecting the drawings upon which depended the success or failure of patent applications. Most notable of his clients during this period was Alexander Graham Bell, who retained Crosby and Gould for patent work on his designs for the telephone. Latimer was extensively involved in the drawings used for this historic invention, which was granted a patent in 1876.
Born Lewis Howard Latimer, September 4, 1848, in Chelsea, MA; died December 11, 1928; son of George A. and Rebecca (Smith) Latimer; married Mary Wilson Lewis, November 10, 1873; children: Emma J., Louis R.
Inventor and draftsman. Learned mechanical drawing at Crosby and Gould (patent attorneys), Boston, MA, 1865-79; worked on patent drawings of Alexander Graham Bell’s original telephone, 1876; draftsman and secretary for Hiram S. Maxim, Bridgeport, CT, 1879; received patents for work on Maxim incandescent lamp, 1880-82, and for other inventions; supervised production of Maxim lamps, England, 1880-82; draftsman and engineer for Olmstead Electric Light and Power Company and Edison General Electric; legal advisor and witness for patent litigation, General Electric, 1890-1912; independent engineer in New York City, 1912-28; writer; poet. Military service: Served in the Union Navy during the Civil War; served in 4th Battalion of Massachusetts Volunteer Militia; became lieutenant.
Member: Edison Pioneers, George Huntsman Post No. 60, Grand Army of the Republic (New York City), New York Electrical Society (Unitarian member), Negro Society for Historical Research, Guelph Lodge (London, England), Citizens Club (Brooklyn, New York).
Selected awards: A public school in Brooklyn, New York, was named for Latimer and dedicated to his memory on May 10, 1968.
“Having a creative and inventive mind, and stimulated, no doubt, by working in an office where applications for patents on inventions were being processed,” noted Louis Haber in Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, “Latimer began to work on inventions of his own.” Patented on February 10, 1874, one of Latimer’s first inventions was an enhancement for railroad car water closets. He later received patents for an apparatus for cooling and disinfecting; a locking rack for hats, coats, and umbrellas; and book supports.
In 1879 Latimer left Crosby and Gould to join the electrical lighting company of Hiram S. Maxim, an American inventor and entrepreneur in the rapidly burgeoning field of electrical illumination. Edison had just demonstrated the first incandescent lamp, and Maxim was determined to improve upon and supplant Edison’s invention. After joining Maxim’s firm, known as United States Electric Lighting Company, Latimer undertook the systematic study of electricity and its application to the problem of lighting. So quickly did he master the new science’s complexities that on January 17, 1882, Latimer and Joseph V. Nichols were granted a patent for the so-called “Maxim lamp,” which made use of carbon filament, an improved, enduring filament that was tolerant of the high temperature needed to radiate light.
With his new lamp, Hiram Maxim launched a bid for supremacy in the crowded world of pioneer electricity. He sent Latimer and other engineers to London to supervise European production of the Maxim incandescent lamp, and it is likely that Latimer was part of the team that designed and installed the Maxim exhibit at the Grand Paris Exhibition of 1881. There the Maxim lamp was awarded a secondary prize along with other competitors of the Edison lamp, which took the highest honors.
Upon his return to the United States in 1882, Latimer jumped to another of the many firms vying for control of the evolving market in electrical illumination, joining Olmstead Electric Light and Power Company of New York. He continued his experimentation on incandescent lights, receiving several more patents in the following year for improved filaments and mounting fixtures.
In 1884, Latimer changed employers once again, this time serving as a draftsman and engineer for Excelsior Electric Company, one of the manufacturing concerns within Thomas Edison’s group of electric companies. Thus, within the space of three years, Latimer had been able to migrate among a number of firms hotly contesting the rights to the incandescent lamp with carbon filament, an indication of his desirable skills and of the chaotic nature of the young industry. With Excelsior Electric, however, Latimer had found his home, and when the company was later incorporated as part of the Edison General Electric Company—which later became known simply as GE—Latimer remained a key member of its engineering and drafting departments.
At the end of the 1880s, the many bitter disputes over patent rights for incandescent lighting were settled one after another in federal courts. The most important of these battles involved Edison General Electric against the combined forces of Westinghouse and Thompson-Houston, two of its most powerful rivals. The patent contested was Edison’s 1880 invention of the carbon filament lamp, and the principal challenger was a Westinghouse subsidiary, United States Electric Lighting Company, which had been absorbed by Westinghouse in the mid-1880s.
United States Electric Lighting Company was Lewis Latimer’s former employer, and he had received some of the patents for the Maxim lamp then challenging the patent claims of Edison General Electric, Latimer’s employer at the time. Latimer thus found himself in the odd position of helping discredit the originality of innovations in electrical lighting he himself had designed and patented ten years earlier. Managers at Edison General Electric were not slow to recognize the value of such a witness, and in 1890—the same year his book Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System was published—Latimer was promoted to the company’s legal department and asked to serve as an expert witness in the lengthy trials then underway between the rival firms. To some degree, Latimer’s testimony was helpful in Edison General Electric’s final victory in these struggles, which ironically tended to undervalue Latimer’s earlier work for United States Electric Lighting Company.
Latimer remained with General Electric in its legal department for many years, making drawings and testifying on behalf of the company’s patent claims. He was regarded as a distinguished inventor and engineer and as such, was of significant value in General Electric’s numerous court battles. As the Goliath of the electrical industry, General Electric prevailed in the majority of its court contests, and by 1912 most of the important battles had been concluded. Latimer’s expertise as a patent trial witness was no longer needed, and at the age of 64 he was let go by General Electric, forced to make a fresh start in the business world.
Latimer spent the remaining years of his life as an independent electrical and mechanical engineer in New York City. He also offered his services as a solicitor of patents, having spent much of his life in the midst of legal wrangling over patent rights. The elderly electrician, who was also a musician, author, and artist, taught night school classes for adults, where he was much revered, and even published a book of poetry before his death in 1928. Though his name is not often found in accounts of the history of electrical lighting, Latimer was one of the many talented designers who helped realize the dreams of men like Edison and George Westinghouse as well as build General Electric into one of the world’s most successful manufacturers of electrical parts and appliances. Upon Latimer’s death, the Edison Pioneers issued a statement about the inventor, as quoted in Outward Dreams: Black Inventors and Their Inventions: “Broadmindedness, 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.”
Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System, D. Van Nostrand Company, 1890.
Also author of Poems of Love and Life.
Haber, Louis, Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.
Haskins, Jim, Outward Dreams: Black Inventors and Their Inventions, Walker Publishing Co., 1991.
Nye, David E., Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940, MIT Press, 1990.
Silverberg, Robert, Light for the World: Edison and the Power Industry, D. Van Nostrand Company, 1967.
Black Enterprise, June 1981.
In the late 19th century, despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing the son of a former slave, Lewis Latimer (1848-1928) contributed many technological advances in the field of electricity.
Lewis H. Latimer was born on September 4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Latimer was the youngest of four children born to George and Rebecca Latimer. His father had obtained his freedom only six years earlier. George Latimer worked as a slave for various owners in Virginia until late 1842, a few months after marrying Rebecca Smith. The young couple decided that escaping to the free states north of the Mason-Dixon line to avoid slavery was the only way to ensure that their future children would have better opportunities.
Escape to Freedom
The couple hid as stowaways aboard a ship headed for Maryland. Upon reaching the city of Baltimore, George and Rebecca began a perilous train journey to New York. Using his fair complexion to his advantage, George pretended to be a white slave owner with Rebecca posing as his slave. Reaching New York without incident, the couple then made their way to Boston, Massachusetts. Although at last residing in a free state, the couple was still concerned about slave catchers. Soon after the Latimers' escape from Virginia, James Gray, George's former owner, ran advertisements in various newspapers describing the young man to slave catchers. Consequently, after their arrival in Boston, George was identified as a runaway slave. He was arrested and Gray notified.
At the time, Boston was a center for the abolitionist movement, which opposed slavery on moral grounds. Taking up the cause of freedom for George were many famous abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Even though there was a large public outcry in support of George, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that he must be returned to his owner. After this tragic defeat, George's supporters met with Gray and offered to buy his slave. Gray agreed and George became a free man in late 1842.
Fighting for an Education
After gaining his freedom, George and Rebecca settled in Chelsea, Massachusetts and started a family. Young Lewis Latimer attended Phillips Grammar School in Chelsea, where he showed much promise in the fields of mathematics and drafting. Because the family often needed money, Latimer sometimes left school to work with his father.
In 1858, Latimer's father left the family and his mother found work aboard a ship. With no parents at home, Latimer was sent to Farm School. His two older brothers attended the state-run school where students were taught vocational skills such as farming. Latimer quickly made plans with one of his older brothers, William, to escape to Boston, where they both hoped to find work. After reaching Boston, the two boys discovered that their mother had returned home.
Although he was reunited with his family, Latimer had to find work to help support himself, his mother, and his brother. Finding only opportunities in manual labor, Latimer searched for a job that would allow him to grow intellectually. He finally secured a job with a law firm and was quite happy. Unfortunately, the start of the American Civil War interrupted his career.
The Civil War began on April 16, 1861, and Latimer left his position with the law firm to join the Union effort. At the young age of 16, Latimer served onboard a gun-ship that protected Union shipping traffic on the eastern seaboard. Four years later, at the end of the war, Latimer was honorably discharged from the service.
A Self-Made Man
Even with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited slavery anywhere in the country, Latimer found it difficult to obtain a position that would offer him the opportunities and mental challenges that he sought. He applied for and received work in the office of Crosby and Gould, a patent law firm. While he did menial tasks at first, Latimer studied the technical patent drawings made by the men who worked as draftsmen. Drawings of inventions were needed before patent applications were submitted to the U.S. Patent Office. Upon confirmation of the invention, patents were issued to the inventor; the drawing protected his invention from counterfeiters who hoped to make money from someone else's hard work. While draftsmen usually obtained their skills from schooling, Latimer was never offered that opportunity. Instead, he created his own. With used drafting tools and books, Latimer studied at night and during the day he carefully watched as draftsmen created technical drawings. After much studying, Latimer presented his work to one of his bosses, who was impressed with his talent and offered him a job as a draftsman. Eventually, Latimer was promoted to the chief draftsman position and remained with the firm for eleven years.
Latimer married Mary Wilson on December 10, 1873. It was a happy time for the young couple, as Latimer found success in his work and personal life. While still working for Crosby and Gould, he began to tinker with his own inventions. In 1874, Latimer received a patent for improving the mechanics of toilets, then known as water closets, on railway cars.
It was at this time that Latimer met and began working with the inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. Bell was trying to change human voices into electrical pulses that could be sent over wires. His work would eventually lead to the invention of the telephone. Because Bell's work was so intensive, he found it difficult to keep up his technical drawing submissions to the U.S. Patent Office. He went to Crosby and Gould and met Latimer, who completed the complicated drawing for Bell and sent them quickly to the Patent Office. Latimer's talent and speed paid off for Bell, who was granted a patent for the telephone on March 7, 1876.
In 1879, Crosby and Gould closed their offices and Latimer found himself without a job. On the advice of his sister, Latimer and his wife moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in search of employment opportunities. Latimer obtained a position as a draftsman at the Follandsbee Machine Shop. While working there he met Hiram Maxim, an inventor who developing an improved light bulb. Thomas Edison had just received the patent for the light bulb, but there was a flaw. It could only emit light for a few hours before it burned out. Maxim was interested in improving the life of the light bulb and recognized that, with Latimer's help, he would be in a better position to do just that.
After accepting a position with Maxim's company, U.S. Electric Lighting, Latimer immersed himself in the study of electrical technology. In 1881, Latimer and a co-worker, Joseph V. Nichols, developed an improved process for the manufacturing of the carbon filament that increases the life of the light bulb. This new procedure made the use of light bulbs more cost effective for the general public. Their patent on the new invention was granted in 1882 and paved the way for further development of the light bulb.
Latimer travelled to many major cities in North America, supervising the installation of electric street lights and electric light plants. At one point, Latimer was overseeing electrical installations in Montreal, where workers spoke only French. Typical of his dogged determination, Latimer taught himself French and was able to translate work orders for the laborers. Latimer became the chief electrical engineer for the U.S. Electric Lighting Company. He worked briefly in London, supervising the Maxim-Westin Electric Light Company, which later would be known as the Westinghouse Company.
After returning to the U.S. in 1882, Latimer was disappointed to find that the leadership of the U.S. Electric Lighting Company had changed, leaving him without a job. He found work at various electric companies, but devoted most of his talent and creativity towards developing an improved lamp. Meanwhile, on June 12, 1883, his daughter Emma Jeanette was born.
Worked with Thomas Edison
In 1884, Latimer was offered an engineering position with the Edison Electric Light Company. The company's founder, Thomas Alva Edison, was devoting much time to improving electrical lighting systems. Latimer helped the legal department defend the company from outsiders who claimed Edison's inventions as their own. In 1890, Latimer revised an out-of-date technical manual entitled Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System. The book received enthusiastic reviews and became a standard in the field of electrical engineering. Latimer found success at work and great joy at home as his second daughter, Louise Rebecca, was born on April 19, 1890.
In 1896, Latimer served on the Board of Patent Control, which was formed by select individuals from the Westinghouse Company and General Electric Company. General Electric was created when Edison merged with one of its rivals, Thomson-Houston. The Board of Patent Control was formed to protect against costly lawsuits regarding inventions and patents, but was abolished in 1911. Edwin Hammer, a patent lawyer, offered Latimer a position as a patent consultant for the firm of Hammer and Schwarz. Hammer's brother, William, was collecting information on individuals who had pioneered in the field of electricity with the Edison Company. Latimer was selected as one of only twenty-eight men who were honored with membership to a group called the Edison Pioneers. Membership in this group represented the highest honor to individuals in the electrical field. On February 11, 1918, the Edison Pioneers met for the first time, on the seventy-first birthday of Thomas Edison.
While Latimer focused most of his attention on discoveries in the electric industry, he also found time for other activities. He developed an early version of a window air conditioner and a locking rack for hats, coats, umbrellas. Latimer won renown as a poet and many of his literary creations were published during his lifetime. He remained active in the cause of civil rights for African Americans. In a letter to fellow civil rights supporter Richard Greener, the first African American to graduate from Harvard University, Latimer said he was "heart and soul into the movement." Latimer was active in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization which tried to keep alive the history of the Civil War veterans. Latimer died in Flushing, New York on December 11, 1928, at the age of 80.
Ayer, Eleanor, Lewis Latimer: Creating Bright Ideas, Steck-Vaughn, 1997.
Haber, Louis, Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970.
Low, W. Augustus, Encyclopedia of Black America, Da Capo Press, 1981.
McKissack, Patricia and Frederick, African-American Inventors, Millbrook Press, 1994.
Russell, Dick, Black Genius and the American Experience, Carroll & Graf, 1998. □