Lewis Latimer is regarded as one of the ten most significant Black inventors of all time, not just for his many inventions but also for his most famous discovery.
Latimer was born on 4 September 1848 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His parents were runaway slaves George and Rebecca Latimer, who migrated from Virginia to Massachusetts in 1842. George Latimer was recaptured by his enslaver, who wanted to return him to Virginia. His situation gained substantial attention, even reaching the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Abolition supporters eventually purchased George and set him free.
Assigned to the USS Massasoit gunboat, Lewis served in the Union Navy during the Civil War and received an honourable discharge on 3 July 1865. After his discharge, he sought employment in Boston, Massachusetts, eventually working for Crosby and Gould as an office boy earning $3.00 a week. As a result of Latimer’s ability to sketch patent drawings, he was eventually promoted to head draftsman, making $20.00 per week. Besides his newfound success, Latimer also found happiness when he married Mary Wilson in November 1873.
Together with W C Brown, Latimer co-invented the water closet, a bathroom compartment for railroad trains, in 1874. Two years later, Latimer would contribute to one of the most important inventions of all time.
A teacher for deaf children hired Latimer as a draftsman in 1876. A teacher created a device and asked Lewis to draft the drawing for a patent application. Alexander Graham Bell was the teacher, and the telephone was the device. Latimer worked long into the night to complete the patent application, which was submitted on 14 February 1876, just hours before Elisha Gray submitted a similar application.
Latimer was hired as the assistant manager and draftsman for Hiram Maxim’s US Electric Lighting Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1880. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the electric light bulb, was Maxim’s chief rival. The light comprised a glass bulb surrounded by a carbon wire filament, generally made of bamboo, paper or thread. When the filament burned inside the bulb (which contained almost no air), it became so hot that it glowed.
Consequently, by passing electricity into the bulb, Edison caused a bright glowing light to illuminate a room. Before this time, most lighting was delivered either through candles or through, gas lamps or kerosene lanterns. To improve on Edison’s light bulb, Maxim focused on its main weakness – its short life span (generally only lasted a few days). Latimer set out to make a more durable bulb.
Latimer encased the filament within a cardboard envelope that prevented the carbon from breaking, resulting in a much longer bulb life and, therefore, less expensive, more efficient bulbs. As a result, electric lighting was installed throughout homes and streets.
As Latimer became well known for his expertise in electric lighting, he was sought after to improve both incandescent and arc lighting. When more major cities began wiring their streets for electric lighting, Latimer was appointed to lead the planning team. During his career, he helped install the first electric plants in Philadelphia, New York City, and Montreal, as well as lighting in railroad stations, government buildings, and major thoroughfares in Canada and New England.
Thomas Edison hired Latimer in 1890 to work in the legal department of Edison Electric Light Company, where he served as the chief draftsman and patent expert. During this time, he drafted drawings and documents related to Edison’s patents, inspected plants looking for infringers, conducted patent searches, and testified on Edison’s behalf in court proceedings.
Later that year, Lewis wrote the world’s most comprehensive book on electric lighting, “Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.” Lewis was named one of the charter members of the Edison Pioneer, a notable group of people deemed responsible for creating the electrical industry. The Edison Electric Lighting would eventually become what is now known as the General Electric Company.
As the years went by, Latimer continued to demonstrate his creative skills. In 1894, he invented a safety elevator, significantly improving existing elevators. His subsequent patent was for Locking Racks for Hats, Coats, and Umbrellas. Restaurants, hotels, and office buildings used this device to keep items secure and prevent them from getting misplaced or accidentally taken by others. His next creation was an improved version of the Book Supporter, used on shelves to organize books neatly.
After that, Latimer designed a system for sanitizing and cooling rooms, the forerunner of today’s air conditioner. His device was called an Apparatus for Cooling and Disinfecting. Hospitals found the device invaluable in preventing dust and particles from circulating throughout patient rooms and public areas.
Latimer continued to improve everyday living for the public throughout the remainder of his life and eventually worked to improve the civil rights of Black citizens within the United States. Additionally, he painted portraits and composed music and poetry for friends and family. On 11 December 1928, Lewis Latimer passed away and left behind a legacy of achievement and leadership to which much of the world owes a debt of gratitude.