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Lewis Howard Latimer
September 4, 1848 - December 11, 1928
Inventor


Lewis Howard Latimer, a pioneer in the development of the electric light bulb, was the only Black member of Thomas A. Edison's research team of noted scientists. While Edison invented the incandescent bulb, it was Latimer, a member of the Edison Pioneers, who developed and patented the process for manufacturing the carbon filaments.

Lewis Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848, and reared in Boston. Latimer's parents, as runaway slaves in the 1830s, had been assisted by whites as well as blacks. Their case had galvanized the Boston abolitionist community to its first major political activity. Latimer and his brothers had enlisted in the military and served in the Civil War. At sixteen Latimer joined the Union navy as a cabin boy on the USS Massasoit. After an honorable discharge in 1865 Latimer returned to Boston.

In his early career in Boston, Latimer was surrounded by technological communities that subscribed to the American ideal that any poor boy could make his fame and fortune through invention and innovation. The Union victory in the Civil War seemed to open the way for African Americans to participate fully in the American dream, and Latimer set his course accordingly.

Skills he had developed in mechanical drawing landed him a position with Crosby and Gould, patent solicitors. While with the company he advance to a chief draftsman and soon began working on his own inventions.While working at the Boston firm, Latimer met Alexander Graham Bell who hired him to draw the plans for a new invention, the telephone. Latimer's detailed descriptions of the geographic proximity of his office to the place where Bell was teaching, and of meeting with Bell add credibility to his claim, although no supporting evidence has been found in either the Bell family papers or the patent applications themselves.

His first patent (US 147,363), approved on February 10, 1874, was for a "water closet for railway cars." Reading the application, a modern observer would probably agree that Latimer's "closed-bottom hopper" would have been preferable to the "open-bottom hopper" in use at the time. Given the superiority of the new design, and Latimer's own ambitions, it would have been exceedingly strange if Latimer and his colleague had indeed made no effort to market their new device. However, there is no record of any such attempt, and Latimer does not mention it in his autobiographical reminiscences.

After leaving Boston in 1879, Latimer arrived in Bridgeport, Connecticut shortly after his thirty-first birthday. He immediately set about making himself useful in the technical community of this busy seaport. In 1880 a combination of circumstances led him into the young electrical utility industry as an employee of Hiram Stevens Maxim, then chief engineer at the United States Electric Lighting Company. Within a week Lewis was installed in Mr. Maxim's office busily following his vocation of mechanical draughtsman, and acquainting himself with every branch of electric incandescent light construction and operation.

When the company moved to Brooklyn in 1880, Latimer moved with it and continued to diversify his achievements. In addition to his desk work and shop work, he went out into the field assisting in arc and incandescent installations of Maxim equipment in New York, Philadelphia, and Montreal. In his logbook, he later recalled:

The following year Latimer and fellow inventor Joseph V. Nichols received a patent for their invention of the first incandescent light bulb with carbon filament. Prior to this breakthrough, filaments had been made from paper.

Of the numerous inventions Latimer made during his employment with U.S. Electric, three were patented: a new support for arc lights, an improvement to Maxim's method of manufacturing filaments for incandescent bulbs, and a new way to attach the carbonized filament to the platinum wires that brought electricity into the bulb from the base. In addition, Latimer's unpatented inventions improved designs for virtually all the other equipment and steps involved in the lampmaking process: the oven that baked the filaments; the preparation of phosphoric anhydride (a chemical used for drying the inert gas that filled the bulb and prolonged the filament life); glassblowing equipment to produce bulbs; and a new socket and switch.

His last assignment for U.S. Electric Lighting was in London, to advise the English on setting up a lamp factory. He arrived New Year's Day of January 1882. By this time, his mentor Maxim was only minimally associated with the electric business.

While in London Latimer began drawings for improvement in elevators. Although the elevator improvement was never patented, Latimer continued to work on it. As late as 1898, Latimer was actively bringing his elevator work to the attention of the Westinghouse, General Electric, and Otis Elevator companies. None of these companies were inclined to pursue the matter. The elevator stands, however, as symbol and evidence of Latimer's continuing pursuit of the American dream of upward mobility via invention.

Although Maxim did meet at least once with Latimer in London, his time and interest were increasingly absorbed in developing the machine gun which brought him his greatest fame. Latimer returned to New York later in 1882, but Maxim stayed in London for many years.

When Latimer returned to the United States late in 1882, the U.S. Electric Light Company had undergone several corporate changes. Maxim was no longer associated with the company, and Latimer found he had no place in the new organization. There is considerable conflicting evidence regarding the dates and firms of Latimer's employment for the next few years. The names of the Weston Company, Olmstead Electric Co., Imperial Electric Light Co., Mather Electric Co., and Acme Electric Light Co. all appear in various biographical and autobiographical accounts prepared more than a decade later. Drawings prepared by Latimer for C. G. Perkins at the Imperial Electric Light Co. during 1884 and 1885 are in the Smithsonian's collection.

About 1885, Latimer found stable employment with the Edison Electric Light Company of New York (parent company of all the Edison electric utility companies) and related or successor firms. He achieved a respected professional position on the basis of his patent expertise, his encyclopedic knowledge of lamp design and manufacturing, his drafting skills, and his creative intelligence.

He entered the Engineering Department of the Edison Electric Light Company and about 1889 was transferred to the Legal Department. He became Edison's patent investigator and expert witness in cases against persons trying to benefit from Edison's inventions without legal permission.

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.

When the Edison General Electric Company merged with Thomson-Houston in 1892, Latimer continued to serve in the Legal Department of the newly formed General Electric Company. (After a bitter struggle, Edison's name was dropped, and Edison himself had no more involvement with the company beyond defending his patents.) About 1896, Latimer joined the Board of Patent Control, a joint arrangement between General Electric and the Westinghouse Company.

On several occasions Latimer testified regarding his observations while working for Edison's competitors. Since Latimer had worked with or been employed by most of the men who challenged Edison's patents, his testimony as to what was going on in their shops was valuable to the Edison cause. One of the biographical sketches, apparently prepared as a letter of reference, states that while in the Legal Department of "the Edison Company . . . he made drawings for Court exhibits, had charge of the library, inspected infringing plants in various parts of the country, and testified as to facts in a number of cases, without materially encouraging the opposing counsel. He also did considerable searching for which his previous experience, and a moderate knowledge of French and German qualified him, rendering efficient service along these lines in the historical filament case and others of this period, involving basic patents.

While working for the Edison and General Electric companies, and thereafter, Latimer continued to invent at a much reduced rate (his last patent was granted in 1905 for a "Book Support"). About 1911, Latimer began work in the private consulting firm headed by Edwin Hammer and Elmer Schwarz.

In 1918, Latimer became a founding member of a rather exclusive social group: the Edison Pioneers. These men were business or technical affiliates, either of Edison's many companies, or of Edison himself. They had all played some part in the development of the electric utility industry; the organizational documents speak vaguely of carrying on the ideals and goals of Thomas Edison, but the primary purpose of the group was probably a mixture of social and professional networking.

In 1922 Latimer retired when failing eyesight caused an end to his career as a draftsman. He continued to invent and teach his drafting skills until his death in 1928.

In addition to the Edison Pioneers, Latimer treasured his membership in the Grand Army of the Republic, a symbol of his service in the Civil War. He became Adjutant of the George Huntsman post of the GAR in Flushing, New York. Latimer was also a founding member of the Flushing Unitarian Church. While these were integrated, predominantly European American organizations, Latimer was also active on behalf of African Americans both locally and nationally.

In his personal life, Latimer again worked within nineteenth-century American ideals. He maintained an advanced amateur's gentlemanly pursuit of music, art, and literature, and he promoted these cultural interests in his family. Latimer's literary efforts included poetry, prose, and plays. Throughout his life, Latimer pursued his objectives with quiet dignity. The testimony of his career, his colleagues, and his family affirms his high level of success.

Latimer's other patented inventions include such diverse items as the first water closet (i.e., toilet) for railroad cars (Patent No. 147,363 issued February 10, 1874), a forerunner of the air conditioner (Patent No.334,078 issued January 12, 1886), a locking rack for hats, coats, umbrellas, etc. ( Patent No. 557,076 issued March 24, 1896) and a book support (Patent No. 781,890 issued February 7, 1905).

Although today's light bulbs use filaments of tungsten, which lasts even longer than carbon, Latimer will always be remembered for making possible the widespread use of electric light.