You might not know the name Lewis Latimer, but he is considered one of the most important black inventors of all time. He was influential in a number of patents and notable developed something that each and every one of us use around us each day: the lightbulb.
Lewis was born in September of 1848 in Massachusetts to parents George and Rebecca, both runaway slaves. Before we dive deep into Lewis' life of invention, his father, George, was actually recaptured by his original slave owner. However, the situation gained local notoriety and reached the Massachusetts Supreme Court. George was eventually set free, but only after abolition supporters in the U.S. purchased him to set him free, once and for all.
Lewis' professional life
As for Lewis, he enlisted in the United States Navy for the Union during the Civil War. He was able to survive a number of bloody battles and after he got out of the Navy at wars end, he started to look for employment in Boston, Massachusetts. He got a job as an office boy at a patent law firm making $3.00 per week.
Latimer, however, started sketching in his downtime and his boss started noticing his work. He was quickly promoted to lead draftsman and started earning $20 per week.
In 1874, Latimer had his first foray into the world of invention after years of perfecting his drafting skills. Together with W.C. Brown, the two invented a bathroom for railroad trains. This served as Latimer's first patent to his name and saw good success in the industry.
However, two years later, Latimer was about to make an achievement that would define his life forever.
In 1876, Lewis Latimer's services as a draftsman were inquired about by a teacher who had created a device that he wanted to get patented. That teacher was Alexander Graham Bell.
Bell needed Latimer's help in drafting up drawings for the telephone's patent application. Latimer took the task with gravity, working late into the night on February 14, 1876. The patent application was completed and submitted that night, just a few hours before a competing patent application was submitted by Elisha Gray for a similar device.
Latimer's work established him as an expert drafter in the industry.
In 1880, Latimer got hired as the assistant manager and draftsman at the U.S. Electric Lighting Company. This company was the chief rival to Edison, working on competing designs for light bulbs.
These early light bulbs usually had a carbon wire filament inside of a glass bulb. The filament in these early bulbs was typically made of bamboo, paper or thread.
Latimer and the light bulb
The company Latimer worked for wanted to develop an improved method of making a lightbulb that solved the biggest weakness with Edison's bulbs. Edison's bulbs, due to the bamboo filament, usually only lasted a few days or so. Latimer was tasked with developing a longer-lasting light bulb.
Lewis Latimer developed a means of encasing filament in a cardboard envelope which would keep the carbon from breaking. This ultimately resulted in the bulbs having a much longer lifespan and making them less expensive – and more efficient.
This innovation made by Latimer made electric lighting possible inside of homes and on streets.
Latimer earned a reputation in the lighting industry and he was soon sought out to solve lighting problems across the country. As electric lighting spread across cities in America, Latimer was sent out to lead the planning teams on location. He helped install electric lights in Philadelphia, NYC, Montreal, and at railroad stations across New England.
By 1890, Latimer's skills had been poached by none other than Thomas Edison, and this famed inventor began working for another arguably more famous inventor. Lewis Latimer became the chief draftsman and patent expert, supervising all of Edison's patent work.
He also inspected products for infringements on Edison's patents and even testified in court on behalf of Edison.
Latimer would go on to write a book about his work with lighting, titled “Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.”
Lewis Latimer's impact on the lighting industry was so significant that he was named a member of the Edison Pioneer, a group responsible for creating the electrical industry.
Latimer's other inventions
Latimer in his later life went on to patent the safety elevator, a system that was far less dangerous than machines in use in the late 1800s. He also received a patent for locking racks for hats and coats.
Another notable invention of Latimer's was a way to climate control and disinfect rooms. Named an Apparatus for Cooling and Disinfecting, this device worked in hospitals preventing dust circulation in operating rooms.
As you can likely tell, Latimer had an influence on a number of notable inventions throughout his life; the telephone, the light bulb. He was a mind born to innovate and create. Throughout his entire life he worked to create new devices to serve a variety of purposes, from locking coat racks to better light bulbs. Lewis Latimer was one of the most impactful inventors of his time.
In 1928, Latimer passed away leaving behind a great legacy.