In the late 19th century, despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing the son of a former slave, Lewis Latimer (1848-1928) contributed many technological advances in the field of electricity.
Lewis H. Latimer was born on September 4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Latimer was the youngest of four children born to George and Rebecca Latimer. His father had obtained his freedom only six years earlier. George Latimer worked as a slave for various owners in Virginia until late 1842, a few months after marrying Rebecca Smith. The young couple decided that escaping to the free states north of the Mason-Dixon line to avoid slavery was the only way to ensure that their future children would have better opportunities.
Escape to Freedom
The couple hid as stowaways aboard a ship headed for Maryland. Upon reaching the city of Baltimore, George and Rebecca began a perilous train journey to New York. Using his fair complexion to his advantage, George pretended to be a white slave owner with Rebecca posing as his slave. Reaching New York without incident, the couple then made their way to Boston, Massachusetts. Although at last residing in a free state, the couple was still concerned about slave catchers. Soon after the Latimers' escape from Virginia, James Gray, George's former owner, ran advertisements in various newspapers describing the young man to slave catchers. Consequently, after their arrival in Boston, George was identified as a runaway slave. He was arrested and Gray notified.
At the time, Boston was a center for the abolitionist movement, which opposed slavery on moral grounds. Taking up the cause of freedom for George were many famous abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Even though there was a large public outcry in support of George, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that he must be returned to his owner. After this tragic defeat, George's supporters met with Gray and offered to buy his slave. Gray agreed and George became a free man in late 1842.
Fighting for an Education
After gaining his freedom, George and Rebecca settled in Chelsea, Massachusetts and started a family. Young Lewis Latimer attended Phillips Grammar School in Chelsea, where he showed much promise in the fields of mathematics and drafting. Because the family often needed money, Latimer sometimes left school to work with his father.
In 1858, Latimer's father left the family and his mother found work aboard a ship. With no parents at home, Latimer was sent to Farm School. His two older brothers attended the state-run school where students were taught vocational skills such as farming. Latimer quickly made plans with one of his older brothers, William, to escape to Boston, where they both hoped to find work. After reaching Boston, the two boys discovered that their mother had returned home.
Although he was reunited with his family, Latimer had to find work to help support himself, his mother, and his brother. Finding only opportunities in manual labor, Latimer searched for a job that would allow him to grow intellectually. He finally secured a job with a law firm and was quite happy. Unfortunately, the start of the American Civil War interrupted his career.
The Civil War began on April 16, 1861, and Latimer left his position with the law firm to join the Union effort. At the young age of 16, Latimer served onboard a gun-ship that protected Union shipping traffic on the eastern seaboard. Four years later, at the end of the war, Latimer was honorably discharged from the service.
A Self-Made Man
Even with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited slavery anywhere in the country, Latimer found it difficult to obtain a position that would offer him the opportunities and mental challenges that he sought. He applied for and received work in the office of Crosby and Gould, a patent law firm. While he did menial tasks at first, Latimer studied the technical patent drawings made by the men who worked as draftsmen. Drawings of inventions were needed before patent applications were submitted to the U.S. Patent Office. Upon confirmation of the invention, patents were issued to the inventor; the drawing protected his invention from counterfeiters who hoped to make money from someone else's hard work. While draftsmen usually obtained their skills from schooling, Latimer was never offered that opportunity. Instead, he created his own. With used drafting tools and books, Latimer studied at night and during the day he carefully watched as draftsmen created technical drawings. After much studying, Latimer presented his work to one of his bosses, who was impressed with his talent and offered him a job as a draftsman. Eventually, Latimer was promoted to the chief draftsman position and remained with the firm for eleven years.
Met Alexander Graham Bell
Latimer married Mary Wilson on December 10, 1873. It was a happy time for the young couple, as Latimer found success in his work and personal life. While still working for Crosby and Gould, he began to tinker with his own inventions. In 1874, Latimer received a patent for improving the mechanics of toilets, then known as water closets, on railway cars.
It was at this time that Latimer met and began working with the inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. Bell was trying to change human voices into electrical pulses that could be sent over wires. His work would eventually lead to the invention of the telephone. Because Bell's work was so intensive, he found it difficult to keep up his technical drawing submissions to the U.S. Patent Office. He went to Crosby and Gould and met Latimer, who completed the complicated drawing for Bell and sent them quickly to the Patent Office. Latimer's talent and speed paid off for Bell, who was granted a patent for the telephone on March 7, 1876.
In 1879, Crosby and Gould closed their offices and Latimer found himself without a job. On the advice of his sister, Latimer and his wife moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in search of employment opportunities. Latimer obtained a position as a draftsman at the Follandsbee Machine Shop. While working there he met Hiram Maxim, an inventor who developing an improved light bulb. Thomas Edison had just received the patent for the light bulb, but there was a flaw. It could only emit light for a few hours before it burned out. Maxim was interested in improving the life of the light bulb and recognized that, with Latimer's help, he would be in a better position to do just that.
After accepting a position with Maxim's company, U.S. Electric Lighting, Latimer immersed himself in the study of electrical technology. In 1881, Latimer and a co-worker, Joseph V. Nichols, developed an improved process for the manufacturing of the carbon filament that increases the life of the light bulb. This new procedure made the use of light bulbs more cost effective for the general public. Their patent on the new invention was granted in 1882 and paved the way for further development of the light bulb.
Latimer travelled to many major cities in North America, supervising the installation of electric street lights and electric light plants. At one point, Latimer was overseeing electrical installations in Montreal, where workers spoke only French. Typical of his dogged determination, Latimer taught himself French and was able to translate work orders for the laborers. Latimer became the chief electrical engineer for the U.S. Electric Lighting Company. He worked briefly in London, supervising the Maxim-Westin Electric Light Company, which later would be known as the Westinghouse Company.
After returning to the U.S. in 1882, Latimer was disappointed to find that the leadership of the U.S. Electric Lighting Company had changed, leaving him without a job. He found work at various electric companies, but devoted most of his talent and creativity towards developing an improved lamp. Meanwhile, on June 12, 1883, his daughter Emma Jeanette was born.
Worked with Thomas Edison
In 1884, Latimer was offered an engineering position with the Edison Electric Light Company. The company's founder, Thomas Alva Edison, was devoting much time to improving electrical lighting systems. Latimer helped the legal department defend the company from outsiders who claimed Edison's inventions as their own. In 1890, Latimer revised an out-of-date technical manual entitled Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System. The book received enthusiastic reviews and became a standard in the field of electrical engineering. Latimer found success at work and great joy at home as his second daughter, Louise Rebecca, was born on April 19, 1890.
In 1896, Latimer served on the Board of Patent Control, which was formed by select individuals from the Westinghouse Company and General Electric Company. General Electric was created when Edison merged with one of its rivals, Thomson-Houston. The Board of Patent Control was formed to protect against costly lawsuits regarding inventions and patents, but was abolished in 1911. Edwin Hammer, a patent lawyer, offered Latimer a position as a patent consultant for the firm of Hammer and Schwarz. Hammer's brother, William, was collecting information on individuals who had pioneered in the field of electricity with the Edison Company. Latimer was selected as one of only twenty-eight men who were honored with membership to a group called the Edison Pioneers. Membership in this group represented the highest honor to individuals in the electrical field. On February 11, 1918, the Edison Pioneers met for the first time, on the seventy-first birthday of Thomas Edison.
While Latimer focused most of his attention on discoveries in the electric industry, he also found time for other activities. He developed an early version of a window air conditioner and a locking rack for hats, coats, umbrellas. Latimer won renown as a poet and many of his literary creations were published during his lifetime. He remained active in the cause of civil rights for African Americans. In a letter to fellow civil rights supporter Richard Greener, the first African American to graduate from Harvard University, Latimer said he was "heart and soul into the movement." Latimer was active in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization which tried to keep alive the history of the Civil War veterans. Latimer died in Flushing, New York on December 11, 1928, at the age of 80.
Further Reading on Lewis Latimer
Ayer, Eleanor, Lewis Latimer: Creating Bright Ideas, Steck-Vaughn, 1997.
Haber, Louis, Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970.
Low, W. Augustus, Encyclopedia of Black America, Da Capo Press, 1981.
McKissack, Patricia and Frederick, African-American Inventors, Millbrook Press, 1994.
Russell, Dick, Black Genius and the American Experience, Carroll & Graf, 1998.