Shedding Light on Lewis Latimer
Edison may have invented the light bulb, but Lewis Latimer helped bring it into the homes of millions.
“Like the light of the sun, it beautifies all things on which it shines, and is no less welcome in the palace than in the humblest home,” wrote Lewis Howard Latimer in his seminal book on incandescent electric lighting, Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System. On its surface, Latimer’s book, published in 1881, served as a layman’s guide to Thomas Edison’s light bulb, which was just then transforming the world. But between explanations of electric currents, resistance, and carbon filaments, Latimer also depicted the technology as a social achievement, rather than a purely technical one. Affordable electric light would not only change the lives of the rich, he suggested, but also the poor—those in the “the humblest home.”
The latter observation embodies Lewis Howard Latimer’s ultimate contribution to the field of electric light, a contribution which to this day remains underappreciated in the towering shadow of figures like Edison. While Edison may be credited with inventing the first practical light bulb, it was Latimer—the son of runaway slaves and, eventually, the only African American member of the prestigious Edison Pioneers—who helped refine and spread the technology to the masses, making it the household utility that it is today. Not only did Latimer directly help Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, creator of the telephone, bring their inventions to fruition, but he authored several patents of his own, including many that were key in making incandescent light more affordable and accessible to the general public.
While Edison may be credited with inventing the first practical light bulb, it was Latimer who helped refine and spread the technology to the masses, making it the household utility that it is today.
That electric light would hold such promise for Latimer makes sense: he knew what a cheaper version of the resource would mean to the disenfranchised, having raised himself up from a similar position in society. Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848, Latimer was the youngest child of George and Rebecca Latimer, both fugitive slaves who had fled Norfolk, Virginia, in 1842. Their case had become one of the era’s more famous, after George was he was arrested in Boston by police working on behalf of his slave owner. His imprisonment attracted attention from prominent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, who supported the call for George’s release and helped raise $400 to purchase his freedom, and eventually resulted in the passage of a Massachusetts law "forbidding state officers from participating in hunting for fugitive slaves."
The young Lewis Latimer took full advantage of the family’s freedom. In 1864, at age 16, he enlisted in the Union Navy and served as landsman aboard the side-wheel gunboat U.S.S. Massasoit, which sailed as part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the nation's Civil War. The boat returned to Boston a year later, and Latimer, having received an honorable discharge, went looking for work. One day he happened upon a young black woman who had been tasked with finding a “colored boy” with a “taste for drawing” to serve as a helper in the office of solicitors Crosby and Gould, a noted patent law firm in Boston.
She found one in Latimer, who proved a natural talent at patent design. As a new recruit, Latimer taught himself drafting, using a set square and ruler, and began offering his skills up to his employers. At first they were reluctant to give Latimer, a young African American, so much responsibility. But eventually they acquiesced, and their skepticism was soon proved unfounded. Latimer rose to the position of chief draftsman, garnering respect for his work and remaining at the firm for eleven years. Alongside coworker Charles W. Brown, he even co-authored his first invention: an upgraded railroad car water closet—essentially, a toilet—that featured a closed-bottom hopper that would automatically open when the seat cover was raised.
It was also during this time that Latimer had his first brush with outstanding creative genius. Down the street from Crosby and Gould was Boston University, the school where Alexander Graham Bell was employed as a professor. The Scottish-born engineer had already begun working on his harmonic telegraph by this point, spending his days in the classroom and his nights running experiments with electricity and sound. By chance one day Bell met Latimer, and was so impressed with the latter’s work that he enlisted him in drawing up his own telephone patent applications. “I was obliged to stay at the office until after 9 p.m., when he was free from his night classes,” Latimer once wrote of his work with Bell, who would then give him drawing instructions for the patents.
Latimer’s work with Bell was undoubtedly motivating, but his own creative genius didn’t fully reveal itself until he turned his talents to a wholly new technology: electric light. In 1880, after assisting Bell, Latimer moved near one of his sisters in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he fell into a position with the United States Electric Lighting Company, then run by chief engineer and founder Hiram Maxim (who would later go on to invent the first machine gun). Here Latimer was introduced to the emerging technology of electric light, which offered the potential of a cheaper and more sustainable substitute for gas lighting. He was also introduced to the work of Thomas Edison, who had already filed his landmark patent for the first incandescent light bulb the year before.
Edison’s prototypical light bulb was the first commercially viable model, but only just. The design’s success lay in the use of a carbonized bamboo filament instead of a cotton or linen-based one, which offered higher resistance and in effect extended the bulb’s lifespan, up to nearly 1,200 hours—over 90 times that of Edison’s original bulb. But there were other factors that affected the bulb’s longevity and cost, not least of which included the process used to manufacture them. Maxim, Edison, and other upstart electric companies competed with each other over improvements to the light bulb, and specifically over coming up with a longer-lasting, more easily produced design for widespread consumer use.
Latimer’s work with Bell was undoubtedly motivating, but his own creative genius didn’t fully reveal itself until he turned his talents to a wholly new technology: electric light
Latimer, who by then had moved with the company to New York City, played a crucial role in solving these problems. In 1882, he and fellow engineer Joseph V. Nicolas received a patent for a breakthrough new method for manufacturing filaments, titled “Process of Manufacturing Carbons.” Specifically, Latimer had discovered a new way of heat-treating carbon filaments by enclosing them in cardboard envelopes, rather than fragile tissue paper, which kept them intact throughout the process and greatly improved their durability. It also allowed the filaments to be molded into novel shapes, such as the characteristic “M” filaments of Maxim’s company, which began using Latimer’s design in its own bulbs. Later Latimer conceived of a more effective way to attach the carbonized filaments to their platinum wire supports, further bolstering the bulb’s overall integrity. And yet almost as influential as Latimer’s patented inventions were those that remained unpatented, encompassing improved designs for virtually all the other equipment and steps involved in the lampmaking process: the oven that baked the filaments; the preparation of phosphoric anhydride (a chemical used for drying the inert gas that filled the bulb and prolonged the filament life); glassblowing equipment to produce bulbs; and a new socket and switch.
Together, these improvements, incremental as they were, continued to shape the incandescent light bulb into a product that was both more affordable and more durable—and thus, more commercially practical—than anything that had come before. But Latimer’s role in the technology didn’t end with minor tweaks; he also helped to disseminate it physically, leading installations of Maxim’s new lamps across major cities. He spent time in Montreal, where he learned French and spent his days "climbing telegraph poles and locating arc lamps on them with the assistance of my laborers who seemed much impressed with my effort to speak their native language,” as he once wrote in his journal. He was sent to London for a period to advise the English on setting up a lamp factory. And he supervised installations in New York and Philadelphia, where the demand for electric light was insatiable. “These were strenuous times, and we made long hours each day,” he wrote, describing how he would arrive at the factory at seven in the morning and work sometimes until twelve or later at night.
By 1885, Latimer had earned a reputation not only of being a skilled draftsman and designer, but also an expert on patent law. After leaving the United States Electric Company, which had undergone organizational change, that reputation caught the attention of the Edison Electric Light Company of New York, Maxim’s main competitor and one of the most well-known names in the business. From 1885 to 1924, Latimer served in a litany of departments at the company, first in engineering, then in legal, and later on the board of patent control, where he defended Edison’s designs against other inventors who would claim them as their own.
During this time, Latimer also established a close relationship with Edison himself. Recognizing the former’s encyclopedic knowledge of incandescent lighting technology, Edison suggested that he write Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System, which was intended as an update to an earlier textbook on incandescent lighting, published by William Edward Sawyer in 1881. Electric light had come a long way since that time—materials were different, bulb designs had evolved. There was also more money pouring into the technology— much more. “Millions of capital are being invested in its production,” Latimer wrote in the book’s introduction, “and it is being introduced throughout the world as rapidly as human activity, supplemented by all the agencies of an advanced civilization, can accomplish this end.”
Another area where electric light had undergone profound transformation was in power supply. In its early years, electricity remained limited to isolated areas, with generators serving a single building here or there. But by 1890, these power stations had become more centralized, with major utility centers serving whole towns and urban neighborhoods. In his book, Latimer noted that in increasing affordability, the larger, more centralized stations traded the chance for an “intelligent laity” to get a hands-on look at how the technology worked. “While these central [power] stations cheapen the production of the light, and bring it within the reach of those who otherwise could not afford it,” he wrote, “it does away with the large number of isolated plants, which formerly afforded the curious an opportunity to inspect the generation, distribution and utilization in light, of this form of energy.”
Yet again, Latimer remained conscious of the impact electric light would have on the lowest members of society—i.e., “those who otherwise could not afford it.” It was a common theme not just in his technical writing but in his other creative pursuits, which included literature, poetry, and civil rights. And it’s a theme that likely attracted Latimer to electric light in the first place, which for him “embodied the relationship of art and science, and its improvement that promised benefits for all classes of society,” wrote Bayla Singer, a professor at Rutgers University, in an article on the inventor and his work. “The electric light was a cause well worth serving.”
For Latimer, electric light "embodied the relationship of art and science, and its improvement promised benefits for all classes of society," wrote Bayla Singer.
Still, even the light bulb couldn’t contain Latimer’s innate tendency toward invention. In 1886, Latimer patented an apparatus for cooling, deodorizing, and disinfecting rooms and other areas, essentially creating a forerunner to the air conditioner. A decade later he received a patent on a locking rack for hats, coats, umbrellas, canes, and the like, and then another for a book supporter. He was also continually occupied with a patent for improving the elevator—yet another “symbol and evidence of Latimer's continuing pursuit of the American dream of upward mobility,” Singer points out.
Latimer’s faith in the country’s fundamental promise of equality—and the role that science plays in achieving it—was also reflected in his personal life. Living with his family in Flushing, a neighborhood of Queens, New York, he spent the latter half of his life deeply involved in his community, contributing to several local philanthropies, serving as an adjutant of the George Huntsman post of the Grand Army Republic, and helping to found the Flushing Unitarian Church. He was outspoken on civil rights issues, throwing his support behind the National Conference of Colored Men in 1895. “If our cause be made the common cause, and all our claims and demands be founded on justice and humanity,” he wrote in a letter that year, “I have faith to believe that the Nation will respond to our plea for equality before the law.”
In 1918, Latimer helped found the Edison Pioneers, a prestigious group of engineers and technicians who had worked with the legendary inventor. Of its 28 charter members, Latimer was the only African American. “He was of the colored race, the only one in our organization,” the society wrote when Latimer died in 1928. “He was a full member, and an esteemed one.”
Like most African American inventors of his time, Latimer never realized any handsome profits from his extraordinary electrical lighting inventions. Only recently have his achievements come to light, demonstrating the difficulty even relatively successful African American inventors, such as himself, had in gaining recognition and compensation for their work. This is true despite the challenges he faced throughout his life, which bridged technological and social world shifts ranging from slavery, Reconstruction, and even Jim Crow era segregation and racism. As a believer in integrity, and in the importance of character and tolerance, Latimer help shaped to a high degree the most critical technology ever developed in human history. He humbly illuminated the world with his unusual genius.