February 22, 2021
Lewis Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on September 4, 1848. His parents, George and Rebecca were slaves in Virginia but had runaway to Massachusetts living as free citizens. This is where Latimer was born. At fifteen years old, Latimer enlisted in the United States Navy and returned to Boston once the Civil War ended. In 1868, he secured a job as an office boy in the Crosby and Gould patent law firm. While he was employed at the firm, he taught himself mechanical drawing. He learned to use the tools of the trade, such as T-squares, triangles, compasses, and rulers mastering the art of drawing to scale.
Latimer was surrounded by genius throughout his career having been associated with the great Alexander Graham Bell! In fact, Latimer drafted the drawings that Bell used to patent the first telephone. Bell was in a race to have his invention patented before anyone else registered with a similar device. Working with Latimer late at night, Latimer was able to provide Bell with the blueprints and expertise in submitting applications. This expertise allowed Bell to file his telephone patent on February 14, 1876, a few hours earlier than that of rival inventors. They had won the race!
In 1880, Latimer began working as a mechanical draftsman with Hiram Maxim an inventor and the founder of the U.S. Electric Lighting Company in Brooklyn, NY. Here, Latimer became familiar with the field of electric incandescent lighting. There was fierce competition in the field to secure patents. In 1881, after many trials and errors. Latimer patented the carbon filament to be used in incandescent lightbulbs. It was this invention that helped make electric lighting practical and affordable for the average household. A luxury we are still using today!
In 1884 Lewis Latimer was invited to work for Thomas Edison in New York. Edison encouraged Latimer to write the book, Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System. Published in 1890, it was extremely popular as it explained how an incandescent lamp produces light in an easy-to-understand manner. On February 11, 1918, Latimer became one of the 28 charter members of the Edison Pioneers; the only African -American in this prestigious, highly selective group.
Latimer’s children had a book of his poems printed in 1925 in honor of his 77th birthday. The poems are sensitive and complement Latimer’s designation as a “Renaissance Man” who painted, played the flute, wrote poetry and plays. Search the Queens Borough Public Library website to find out more about Lewis Latimer. Watch here for more stories of Black notables.