Lewis Latimer (1848-1928)
“Habit is a powerful means of advancement, and the habit of eternal vigilance and diligence, rarely fails to bring a substantial reward.” – Lewis Howard Latimer
Recently, there has been a discussion that Thomas Edison did not invent the lightbulb and that the lightbulb was invented by a black man. The black man they are referring to is Lewis Latimer. Now, the truth is that the incandescent light bulb was indeed invented by Thomas Edison, but his lightbulb used a filament that burned out in 3-4 days, so it wasn’t very practical. Lewis Latimer invented a longer burning filament that made Edison’s lightbulbs last longer which made it possible to be easily used in peoples’ homes and businesses. We at IDareU2Bee.com wish to celebrate and honor the African Americans who helped bring light and illumination into our households!
Lewis Howard Latimer was born in 1848 in Massachusetts to two runaway slaves from Virginia. Before he was born, Lewis’ father George was captured, arrested, and put on trial in Boston. He was represented by Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison and his freedom was eventually purchased by an African American minister. This trauma left its mark on George as in 1857 when Lewis was 9 years old, George disappeared, and it was speculated that he ran because he was afraid of the Supreme Court ruling in the Dred Scott case that declared a slave could be returned to their slave owner despite now living in a free state.
Lewis and his brother were sent to a farm school and his sisters were sent to live with extended family after George disappeared. There he developed his creative spirit by drawing and writing poetry. At 16 Lewis lied about his age, enlisted in the navy, and fought in the Civil War. After the war ended, he returned to Boston and found a job as an office boy at a patent law office. Here he observed the draftsmen at work and took an interest in mechanical drawing which he then taught himself. After honing his skills in his free time, he asked for the opportunity to show his boss his skills as a draftsman. His talent was undeniable, and he was promoted immediately.
It was while working as a draftsman that he encountered many inventors including Alexander Graham Bell who hired him to draft the designs for his new invention-the telephone! He helped Bell complete and submit his patent just a few hours prior to a rival inventor. Lewis started coming up with his own inventions, as well, one of which was a toilet for train cars. In 1880, Lewis found a new job working at the US Electric Lighting Company-which was owned by Thomas Edison’s archrival. It was here that he learned all he could about electricity and electrical engineering and in 1881 he patented an improvement on the lightbulb. In 1882 he patented an improved method for producing the carbon filament that was used in the incandescent lightbulb. Up until this point, the lightbulbs were not practical as they only lasted about 3-4 days before burning out. Lewis’ patent increased the life of the carbon filament thus increasing the life of the lightbulb, making it more practical and more suited for widespread use.
In 1884, Thomas Edison hired him as an expert witness and master draftsman, and patent investigator. Not only did he oversee patenting Edison’s inventions, but he also had the expertise to defend patent infringement cases in which rival inventors were trying to profit from Edison’s inventions without permission. He went on to learn French and German as he was responsible for translating the data and protecting Edison’s inventions in Europe. In 1890, Latimer wrote a book on the Edison incandescent light system which was well received because it explained how electric lighting worked in easy-to-understand language. And in 1918, he became the only African American charter member of the prestigious Edison Pioneers.
Lewis Howard Latimer lived a full life, having overcome many obstacles along the way. Despite the hardships, he knew that if he developed good habits and was diligent in practicing those habits, he would be successful. He didn’t let obstacles such as his age, or no formal education stop him in the pursuit of his talents and dreams. We thank him for his contribution to electrical engineering which enabled us to enjoy the benefits of electrical lighting at home and at work. We honor his courage to let go of negativity and circumstances and LET LOVE WIN!