Lewis Howard Latimer

It is an unfortunate fact of life that not all persons who live a life that is worthy of emulation become household names. The passage of time plays a large role in the continuance of the anonymity. The advent of the web site should result in this condition being improved. In this regard one person shall be considered here. That person, Lewis Howard Latimer (1848 - 1928), deserves to be better known.

This writer will not consider details of Latimer's life in depth; others have already done that. Instead, brief mention will be made of some of the aspects of his life that should be of interest to those persons who delve into early lamp history.

Lewis Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He was the fourth child of George and Rebecca Latimer. George, his father, had been a slave in Virginia. Lewis, therefore, came from humble surroundings but that fact didn't suppress his interest in reading, writing stories, drawing and writing poetry. At age 16 he joined the U.S. Navy and served on the U.S.S. Massasoit.

Later Latimer became a draftsman and it was he who made the drawings for Alexander Graham Bell for his famous U.S. Patent No 174,465 issued Mar 7, 1876. That patent ushered in the age of the telephone.

In 1880 Latimer joined the United States Electric Lighting Company under Hiram S. Maxim. Quoting from the booklet put out by the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation in 1973:

"While there, Latimer invented and patented a process for making carbon filaments for light bulbs. He taught the process to company workers, and soon it was being used in factory production. Latimer also assisted in installing Maxim lighting systems in New York City, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London.

During the installation of lighting in Montreal, where a lot of people spoke only French, Latimer learned the language in order to competently instruct the workers. In London, he set up the first factory for the Maxim-Weston Electric Light Company. That required him to teach the workmen all the processes for making Maxim lamps, including glassblowing. In a brief nine months, Latimer had the factory in full production."

In 1882 Latimer left the employ of Maxim to seek other challenges. In 1884 he joined the Edison Electric Light Company to begin a notable career. He was named draftsman-engineer. In 1890 Latimer coauthored a book titled Incandescent Electric Lighting - A Practical Description of the Edison System. One of the coauthors was John W. Howell. It was a small book, of dimensions 3-3/4 x 5-3/4 inches. An image of the frontispiece of the book is shown below. A scanned image of an Edison lamp, in and out of a socket, (that faced the frontispiece) is also shown.

In the year 1890 Latimer joined the Edison Legal Department and was involved in testifying in legal cases. He was such a member in New York in 1893 during the famous Oconto Incandescent Lamp Case. In 1896, when the Board of Patent Control of GE and Westinghouse was formed, Latimer became its chief draftsman and he continued in that position until 1911. In that same year Latimer joined the consulting firm of Edwin W. Hammer.

Lewis H. Latimer passed away in his home in Flushing, Long Island. A tribute to Latimer was made in 1928 by William H. Meadowcroft, historian for the Edison Pioneers, when he said:

The following two images were scanned from the booklet Lewis Howard Latimer - A Biography and Related experiments You Can Do.

It is of some interest to note that at the present time (April, 2000) there is a lighting exhibition in the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, D.C. titled "Lighting a Revolution". In the display case labelled "Electric Light" are several early incandescent lamps of various manufacture. Also in that case are three photographs of persons who were significant contributors to developments of the lamp. The photographs are of Sir Joseph Swan, Dr. Walther Nernst and Lewis Howard Latimer.

General References

1) Lewis Howard Latimer (Pioneers in Change Series), Glenette Tilley Turner.

2) Lewis Latimer (Black Americans of Achievement), Winifred Latimer Norman, Lily Patterson, 101 pages, 1993, Chelsea House Pub., ISBN: 0791019772.

3) Lewis Howard Latimer, A Biography and Related Experiments You Can Do, Publication of the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation, 2000 Second Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48226, 1973, 32 pages.

4) Lewis Latimer: Creating Bright Ideas (Innovative Minds), Eleanor H. Ayer, 112 pages, Jan 1997, Raintree/Steck Vaughn, ISBN: 0817244077.

5) Obituary, Electrical World, Vol 92, No 25, Dec 22, 1928, pg 1271.