Articles/Biographies/Other/Latimer, Lewis

article written by Frank Stroupe

Lewis Latimer was born on September 4, 1848, in Chelsea MA. His parents, George and Rebecca Latimer, were slaves that had run away from their owner in Virginia in 1842. Falling under the Fugitive Slave Law, George was arrested and imprisoned upon their arrival in Boston. George's master sought to have him returned to Virginia, and this incident became a rallying call for Massachusetts' abolition movement, creating much public protest. The Latimers finally gained their freedom when an abolitionist minister paid money to their former master.

Though the Latimers were now free, they were poor, and Lewis grew up in poverty. He educated himself probably beyond the fifth grade. When the Civil war broke out, George's older brothers joined the Union Army, and when Lewis turned 16, he joined the Union Navy, and served aboard the USS Massasoit, a side-wheel gunboat assigned to blockade Confederate ships in the James River.

After the war, Lewis returned to Massachusetts and found a job as an office boy for Crosby and Gould patent law firm, an office that specialized in patent law. He taught himself mechanical drawing, and within 11 years, rose from office boy to chief draftsman, mostly making technical drawings for patent applicants. Latimer's technical drawings were so detailed, they were considered by many to be works of art.

In 1873, he married Mary Wilson Lewis, later that year he received his first patent, an improved toilet system for railroad cars. About this time he met Alexander Graham Bell, who eventually hired him to draw the technical drawings for his telephone, in a rush to be the first to receive a patent for the device. Latimer was able to help Bell with the drawings, and patent submittal expertise, that made Bell successfully patent his telephone in 1876.

In 1880, Lewis went to work for Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the first successful machine gun and silencer, and creator of the U. S. Electric Lighting Company, in Brooklyn, NY. It was here that Latimer became familiar with incandescent lighting. At the time, there was much competition around the country for successful electric lighting. He also traveled around the country, supervising installation of equipment sold by Maxim.

At about the time Latimer began work at U.S. Electric Lighting (March, 1880), he was elected to membership in Bridgeport's Scientific Society, an organization to which Maxim and other local notables also belonged. In a paper presented to the Society in May, Latimer argued that art and science were closely related. Besides being a draftsman and inventor, Latimer was also an artist, poet, and played the flute.

Latimer began collaboration with Thomas Edison, and in 1884 was hired by Edison, Maxim's chief rival. Latimer was in charge of drafting, patent submittal, and Edison's library. He collected books and documents from around the world, mainly to check for patent violations. He also was part of Edison's inventor team, and made probably his most important contribution to inventions, it was his idea to use a carbon filament in the light bulb. He was also a legal consultant for the company, as Edison's patents were often challenged in court, and Latimer's expertise in patent preparation and interpretation, along with his long time involvement in electric lighting, made him an expert in the matter.

Lewis, wrote the popular book, "Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System". Published in 1890, it was extremely popular as it explained how an incandescent lamp produces light in an easy-to-understand manner.

On February 11, 1918, Latimer became one of the 28 charter members of the Edison Pioneers, the only African-American in this prestigious, highly selective group. After leaving Edison, he worked as a patent consultant, but his failing eyesight forced him to retire.

Latimer was an officer in the GAR, Grand Army of the Republic, the Union Civil War Veterans' organization. A book of his poetry was published in 1925. He also taught mechanical drawing to new immigrants from Europe. Besides poetry, he also wrote plays.

Lewis Latimer died December 11, 1928.