Lewis Howard Latimer was born on September 4th, 1848 in Chelsea, Massachusetts to George and Rebecca Latimer. His parents were escaped slaves from Virginia – his father was arrested and tried as a fugitive slave when Lewis was young. He was facing being sent back to slavery in Virginia, however, was saved thanks to the local community raising money for him to buy back his freedom. Shortly after, George abandoned the family – possibly fearing being captured again.
Lewis steps up
With his father gone, the Latimers endured great hardship. This led Lewis to enlist in the Union Navy when he was just 15 years old – forging his age by altering his birth certificate. He served and received an honourable discharge two years later, whereby he made his home in Boston – taking a job at Crosby & Gold patent solicitors.
Rise of a draftsman
Though he had no formal training, Lewis watched the draftsmen at Crosby & Gold with great interest, devoting much of his time to studying. Though initially hired as an office boy, his talent was recognised and he would ultimately work his way up to becoming head draftsman. Latimer would co-patent an improved toilet system for railway carriages, named the Water Closet, in 1874.
It was while working for Crosby & Gold that in 1876 he came to the attention of inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Bell was working on his telephone and commissioned Latimer to draft the drawings necessary to apply for the patent.
Hiram Maxim founded the U.S Electric Light Company and invented the machine gun that bears his name. He hired Latimer as a draftsman and assistant manager, where his drafting talent and creativity was put to good use. While working for Maxim, Latimer developed a method of producing carbon filaments for use in the Maxim electric incandescent lamp. Through 1881 he would oversee their installation in New York, Montreal, London, and Philadelphia.
Latimer started working for Thomas Edison in 1884 – where he was the original draftsman for the inventor. He would be the star witness during the infringement suits Edison faced, due to his familiarity with the designs in question. Of the 24 “Edison Principles” – the Edison Company engineering division heads – Latimer was the only African-American. While working for Edison, he would co-author a book on electricity in 1890 entitled “Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.”
Further career and legacy
Latimer continued to work for Edison through the merger with Thomson-Houston Electric Company, forming General Electric, until 1911. At that point he put his skills to use as a general patent consultant to a wide variety of law firms, until his retirement in 1922. He died on December 11th, 1928 in Queens, New York City, aged 80.
His work on electric filaments has led him to become an inductee in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and he has a set of apartment houses in Flushing, Queens named “Latimer Gardens.” There is currently an invention program at MIT that bears his name, as a further tribute to his contributions.