Latimer was an inventor, draftsman, engineer, and scientist as well as a poet, author, artist, flautist and philanthropist.
And it is a little known historical fact that he’s the draftsman who drew the blueprints for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in 1876.
Five years later, in 1881, Latimer (along with his assistant Joseph Nichols) was the first person to receive a patent for the direct forerunner to today’s commonly used light bulb. That is precisely why, in the first paragraph of this article, I referred to Edison as the man “technically” known as the inventor of the light bulb.
Allow me to explain.
Prior to Latimer’s patented invention, the electric lamp invented by Edison in 1879 had no real practical effectiveness because it used bay wood, cedar, bamboo and similar inefficient fibers and, therefore, could not emit light for an extended period of time. But the new light bulb invented by Latimer (and Nichols) used a revolutionary method of manufacturing carbon filaments that produced light for extended periods.
It was because of this ingenious invention that Latimer was asked by numerous countries, states and cities – including Philadelphia – to write the “Incandescent Electric Lighting” instruction manual for electrical engineers, which he did in 1890. He was also asked to, and did, supervise the installation of incandescent light plants.
Latimer was born in Chelsea, Mass., to parents who arrived there in 1842 after escaping slavery in Virginia. While in nearby Boston a day after having fled to Chelsea, Lewis’ father was arrested when his former so-called “master” filed criminal charges against him for stealing his own body – which was legally considered the “master’s” property. About two weeks later, he was on trial for that charge. Fortunately, two remarkable abolitionists, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, came to his defense and he was able to regain his freedom, but only after an abolitionist African American minister paid $400 to purchase that freedom. Today, that would equal $14,452.49, which is the price of a cheap car. To white America, that was all a healthy Black man’s life, humanness, body and labor were worth. Think about that for a minute.
At age 16 in 1864, Latimer joined the Navy to support the Union in the Civil War. Despite having no formal education or training beyond grammar school, Latimer taught himself mechanical drawing in the military. After operating a naval gunboat and then receiving an honorable discharge in 1865, he was hired as an “office boy” at a patent law firm because of his exceptional intellect. He immersed himself in his work and constantly sought to learn as much as possible about complex drafting tools like triangular scales, t-squares, protractors, French curves, compasses, blue print measurers, etc.
He was so talented that after being paid $3 a week when he first started his “office boy” job in 1865, he was eventually promoted to head draftsman in 1872 when he earned $20. In 2022 dollars, that’s a raise from $54.53 per week to $485.70 per week. And keep in mind that his white employer considered him worthy of receiving that high pay during slavery, actually five months before the 13th Amendment (kinda/sorta) abolished slavery on Dec. 6, 1865. He was given constant raises and promotions throughout that employment.
Before Edison offered him a job in 1884, Latimer had already patented (along with Charles Brown) an updated passenger train toilet system in 1874 and drawn the blueprints for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in 1876.
Three years later, Latimer was hired at U.S. Electric Lighting Company, which was owned by Hiram Maxim, a major competitor of Edison. It was while working there that, as documented by MIT’s School of Engineering at lemelson.mit.edu, “Latimer created a way to make the carbon filament more durable by encasing it in cardboard and went on to patent the process for efficiently manufacturing the carbon filament in 1882. His invention made incandescent lighting practical and affordable and was also longer lasting than earlier filaments.”
Latimer’s engineering brilliance regarding this durable carbon filament light bulb (prior to today’s use of tungsten filaments in light bulbs) is obvious as shown in his U.S. Patent Number 252,386 design, which was signed by him and his attorney Parker W. Page on Jan. 17, 1882.
In 1886, Latimer laid the foundation for the invention of the air conditioner by creating the “Apparatus for cooling,” which has U.S. Patent Number 334,078.
After getting married in 1873 and having two daughters, he moved his family and other relatives to Bridgeport, Conn. in a neighborhood known as “Little Liberia.”
For more information, log on to lewislatimerhouse.org to check out the impressive Lewis H. Latimer Museum at the landmarked Flushing, N.Y., former residence of this great Black man.
On Sept. 4, we said “Happy 174th Birthday, Brother Lewis Howard Latimer!”
Although he transitioned this life and became a revered ancestor on Dec. 11, 1928, his light, correction, his light bulb as well as his prodigious engineering ingenuity still shines bright.
This column first appeared in the Philadelphia Tribune, a publishing partner of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.