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As one of the first major African-American inventors, Lewis Howard Latimer invented modern carbon filaments, making Thomas Edison’s primitive, quick-burning light bulb more stable and available to all.
Ultimately, a man whose parents liberated themselves from chattel slavery became a mastermind behind the scenes improving some of the most well-known inventions in American history.
Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848. Just six years earlier, his parents, George and Rebecca Latimer, had run away from slavery in Virginia, according to the Smithsonian Museum’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.
In fact, Latimer’s parents were temporarily jailed, with a Judge ruling his father still belonged to the plantation owner in Virginia. Notable leaders, such as Frederick Douglass, vigorously protested the ruling, and a Black minister paid $400 for his parents’ release.
Lewis Howard Latimer used genius and creativity to think outside the box
The youngest of three sons and a daughter, Lewis Latimer displayed excellent reading and writing skills as a child. Yet in 1857, the Supreme Court “Dred Scott” ruling affirmed the legality for runaway slaves to be captured and returned to their former master’s plantation. Lewis went into hiding, supposedly fearing for his safety.
He eventually faked his age and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1864, when he was just 16 years old. Following the Civil War, Latimer was honorably discharged in 1868 and went to work as an office boy at a patent law firm. Illustrating his adaptive, creative, and quick-learning capabilities, Latimer studied draftsmen and books on the trade until he taught himself how to do mechanical drawing.
Bringing an unprecedented artistic flair to a precisely scientific trade, Latimer made himself incredibly valuable to the patent industry.
At this time, thousands of patents were being filed during an explosion of ingenuity. For many successful inventors, it wasn’t always the case that they were the first to come up with the idea. Oftentimes, all that mattered was who became the first to file their patents. Lewis Howard Latimer’s creative eye, skilled hands, and quick wit were highly needed.
Lewis Latimer invents carbon filament
While working at the Boston patent firm, Latimer crossed paths with Alexander Graham Bell, who was desperately trying to secure his patent for the telephone before his rivals. Latimer worked day and night with Bell, drawing the blueprints for Bell’s patent, which was filed just hours before his competitors on February 14, 1876.
Latimer’s ingenuity propelled him to work with other famous inventors as well, including Thomas Edison and Hiram S. Maxim, according to the Lewis Latimer House Museum, which contains many of his artistic renderings.
Thomas Edison and Hiram S. Maxim were arch rivals in the electrical engineering industry, and Lewis Latimer worked with them both.
First, in 1880 Latimer worked for Maxim, who founded and invented the Electrical Light Company in Brooklyn. Latimer gained invaluable experience with the field of electric incandescent lighting. Not afraid to get his hands dirty, Latimer also went around the country supervising installation of many of Electric Light Company’s products.
While Latimer was still working with Maxim, Thomas Edison patented the incandescent light bulb on January 27, 1880, according to the National Archive.
Yet the rudimentary invention was hardly practicable or accessible to the masses. Edison’s invention used a filament that burned too quickly, making it impractical and prohibitively expensive for the average American.
Two years later, Lewis Latimer invented a carbon filament that made the lighting more affordable and longer-lasting, according to the Lemelson-MIT program.
Thomas Edison recognized Latimer’s genius
In 1884, Edison invited Latimer to work with him instead, becoming the brains behind the inventor. Latimer’s immense theoretical and practical knowledge “guided Edison through the process of filing patent forms properly at the U.S. Patent Office, protecting the company from infringements of his inventions,” according to the Smithsonian.
Latimer’s creative genius enabled Thomas Edison to reap the rewards of being labeled the inventor of the incandescent light bulb. Latimer, however, made his mark on that, too.
By 1918, Edison had invited Latimer to join his elite scientific club, where he continued to make improvements to the light bulb.
Ten years later, in 1928, Lewis Latimer passed away, four years after the death of his wife Mary Wilson Latimer, and leaving behind two daughters.
Aside from carbon filament, Latimer invented the first water closet, or toilet, for railroad cars and an early version of the air conditioner. Today’s light bulbs use tungsten, which lasts even longer than carbon filaments. Yet Latimer will forever be remembered as a creative genius.
“We create our future by well improving present opportunities: however few and small they be,” Lewis Howard Latimer once said.