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Lewis Latimer's Bright Idea
Everyone knows the common everyday light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison. Well, at least that’s what most of us were taught in school. But, to be fair, Edison has to be given some credit because his bulbs did provide illumination for several days.
However, it was Lewis Howard Latimer, his assistant, who many feel deserves the most recognition. Latimer found a way to prevent carbon in the filament from breaking, thereby extending its life and making them cheaper to produce commercially. He is to also be credited with designing a threaded wooden socket for them. Lewis was the only African American member on Edison’s 24 member team and is considered one of the 10 foremost Black inventors in history. Lewis Latimer was also a draftsman, engineer, author, poet and musician.
Perhaps, his work on the light bulb overshadowed much of his other work. He had a great number of other inventions under his belt, for instance his work on the safety elevator. Latimer was also a co-author of a book on electricity published in 1890 titled, "Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.
Latimer was the humble son of runaway slaves from Virginia who settled in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where he was born September 4th, 1848. His father, George, was captured and would have certainly been sent back to Virginia had it not been for abolitionists who bought his freedom. Fearing re-enslavement, George went underground.
During the Civil War, Lewis lied about his age and joined the United States Navy at 15. He served aboard the U.S.S. Massasoit gunboat. After being honorably discharged on July 3, 1865, he took an entry level job in a patent office. His skill at sketching patent drawings allowed him to become a draftsman, and eventually head draftsman with the patent law firm, Crosby and Gould. He made $20.00 a week. In November of 1873 he married Mary Wilson.
The next year Latimer, working with a W.C. Brown, the duo made major improvements in water closets aboard railroad trains. That’s what folks called the bathroom compartment in those days.
In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell, at the time a teacher for deaf children, asked Latimer to draft a drawing necessary for a patent application…the telephone. Latimer worked hard to finish it. The patent was submitted February 14, 1876, mere hours before another application was submitted for a similar device.
Latimer relocated to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1880, shortly after his 31st birthday. There he found employment as an assistant manager and draftsman for the U.S. Electric Lighting Company. Ironically, the company was owned by Hiram Stevens Maxim, Thomas Edison’s chief competitor. Maxim was the man who invented the Maxim machine gun.
Not long afterwards the company moved to Brooklyn, and Latimer went with it. He took on additional assignments assisting in arc and incandescent installations of Maxim equipment not only in New York, but Philadelphia, and Montreal as well. His last assignment for the company was in London, advising the English on establishing a lamp factory.
Latimer decided to remain in London and began sketching drawings for elevator improvements. Although they were never patented, he continued working on them. By 1898, Latimer had submitted his work to the attention of various elevator manufacturers including Westinghouse, General Electric, and Otis Elevator companies. However none seemed to be particularly interested. Notwithstanding, the elevator remains a symbol of Latimer's pursuit of making the American dream become a reality for all.
Latimer was forced to retire in 1922 because of failing eyesight although he continued to invent and teach drafting skills until his death in 1928. He will forever be remembered by a grateful nation as a pioneer in developing the electric light bulb.