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Lewis Howard Latimer

instrumental in development of the telephone, electric lighting, etc.

Lewis Howard Latimer

Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848, the youngest of four children born to George and Rebecca Latimer, who had escaped from slavery in Virginia. George Latimer left the family shortly after the Dred Scott decision of 1857, most likely because he feared a return to slavery, and Lewis was forced to work to help support his mother and siblings. In 1864, Lewis lied about his age in order to enlist in the U. S. Navy, in which he served honorably through the end of the Civil War.

In 1868, Latimer secured a job as an office boy at Crosby and Gould, a Boston law firm that specialized in helping inventors protect their patents. One of the most important jobs at the firm (and at any other patent law firm) was that of draftsman, a man responsible for creating the detailed diagrams that accompany the patents. By carefully watching draftsmen at Crosby and Gould and reading books on the subject, Latimer taught himself mechanical drawing, and by 1872 he had been promoted from office boy to draftsman, with an increase in salary from $3 to $20 a week.

On November 15, 1873, Latimer married Mary Wilson, with whom he had two daughters. Mary died in 1924.

In addition to his work as a draftsman, Latimer also became an inventor in his own right. In 1874, he and Charles W. Brown were granted U. S. Patent 147,363 for a "Water Closet for Railroad Cars."

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell hired Latimer to draft the drawings necessary for a patent application. By working with him late into the night, Latimer was able to help Bell submit his patent application for the telephone on February 14, 1876, just hours before Elisha Gray submitted a similar patent application.

In 1880, after moving to Bridgeport, Connecticut, Latimer was hired as an assistant manager and draftsman by the U. S. Electric Lighting Company, owned by Hiram Maxim. One of Thomas Edison's biggest rivals, Maxim was determined to improve on Edison's incandescent light bulb by finding a way to increase its life span. Latimer devised a way of encasing the carbon wire filament within an cardboard envelope, which prevented it from breaking and, therefore, extending the bulb's average life span. On September 13, 1881, Latimer, along with Joseph V. Nichols, received U. S. Patent 247,097 for an "Electric Lamp." He was granted U. S. Patent 252,386 for a "Process of Manufacturing Carbons" on January 17, 1882. In addition to his laboratory work, Latimer also oversaw the production and installation of Maxim lighting systems across the United States, Canada, and England.

Hiram Maxim moved to England in 1884, and that same year Latimer was invited to work for the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City, New York. There, he drafted drawings and documents related to Edison patents, inspected plants in search of infringers of Edison’s patents, conducted patent searches, and testified in court proceeding on Edison’s behalf. He was also in charge of the company library, charged with collecting information from around the world and translating data in French and German to protect the company from European challenges. In 1890, with encouragement from Edison, he published Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System, in which he explained the science behind incandescent lighting in an easy-to-understand manner. On February 11, 1918, Latimer became one of the 28 charter members (and the only black member) of the Edison Pioneers.

In addition to his work for Edison, Latimer also continued inventing. On January 12, 1886, he received U. S. Patent 334,078 for an "Apparatus for Cooling and Disinfecting," which was put to use in hospitals to prevent dust and other harmful particles from circulating within patient areas. His "Locking Rack for Hats, Coats, and Umbrellas" received U. S. Patent 557,076 on March 24, 1896, and quickly found use in restaurants, hotels, and office buildings. Latimer also received patents for a safety elevator, at least two types of lamp fixtures, and a device to keep books neatly arranged on shelves.

Latimer continued to work as a patent consultant until failing eyesight forced him to retire in 1922. He died in Flushing, New York, on December 11, 1928.

The Black Inventor Online Museum
Smithsonian Institution

Dred Scott
Civil War
Alexander Graham Bell
Thomas Edison

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The Robinson Library >> Electrical and Nuclear Engineering >> Biography

This page was last updated on June 25, 2018.