Lewis H. Latimer
African-American inventor, electrical pioneer
Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on September 4, 1848, but he was raised in Boston. He and his three older siblings were the children of escaped slaves named George and Rebecca Latimer. Six years before Lewis was born, his parents fled slavery in Virginia, but his father George was captured in Boston and tried by his owner. During his trial, he was defended by Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, two leading abolitionists of the day.
With the help of a minister, George Latimer purchased his freedom, but fear of the repercussions from the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case—which protected the rights of slave owners—caused the elder Latimer to flee with his family again, this time to Chelsea, Massachusetts, where Lewis was born. Fear of being reenslaved consumed George Latimer, which caused him to abandon the family altogether, and he disappeared not long after. The Latimer children were split up, with the boys sent to live on a farm, and the girls sent to stay with a friend of the family.
With his father gone, Lewis helped support the family by finding work, and on September 16, 1863, at the age of 15, he enlisted in the Union Navy by convincing recruiters he was three years older. Lewis served on the military steamer the USS Massasoit as a landsman, the lowest rank reserved for recruits with no sea experience. After nearly two years of service, he was honorably discharged. Shortly after that, Lewis landed a job as an office boy at Crosby, Halsted, and Gould, a patent firm in Boston.
On November 10, 1873, before he arrived at his first invention, Lewis married Mary Wilson, with whom he had two daughters, Jeanette and Louise. Then in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell personally hired Lewis—by then a master draftsman—to create drawings for the patent application related to Bell’s telephone. A few years later, Lewis entered the competitive electrical field when he moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and worked for the U.S. Electric Lighting Company in Brooklyn, New York. The company’s owner was Hiram Maxim, who was Thomas Edison’s rival. His time at Maxim’s company allowed Lewis to acquire additional technical and legal knowledge that would establish him as an expert patent witness in years to come. While at Electric Lighting, Lewis successfully improved incandescent lamps by producing a carbon filament that was more durable than the popular variety in wide use. The invention positioned Hiram Maxim’s company as a viable competitor to Edison’s.
“Lewis successfully improved incandescent lamps by producing a carbon filament that was more durable than the popular variety in wide use.”
Recognizing Lewis Latimer’s great promise, Thomas Edison hired him away from Hiram Maxim and eventually promoted him to lead patent investigator. Later in his career, Lewis made history again by becoming a founding member—and the only black one—of a group of 100 Edison employees known as the Edison Pioneers. They were an impressive collection of chemists, engineers, draftsmen, lawyers, industrialists, inventors, and entrepreneurs. They were Edison’s elite inner circle, and Lewis Howard Latimer sat comfortably among them.
Apart from his career as an engineer, draftsman, inventor, patent consultant, and expert patent witness, Lewis was also a writer, poet, playwright, and flutist. He retired in 1924 with his legacy firmly intact. In 2006, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.