Historical Connection: Lewis Latimer
June 13, 2022
By Alexandria Edwards, Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator
June 19 is the date that we celebrate Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, marking the end of slavery in the United States in 1865 (two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed). In June of 2021, the Senate voted to make Juneteenth a federal holiday – the first holiday signed into effect since Martin Luther King Jr. Day by President, Ronald Regan in 1983. To honor this momentous occasion, we are recognizing the accomplishments of Lewis Latimer who made significant lasting improvements in the United States. Latimer encouraged people to prosper and reach their full potential through his work and fought tirelessly for the rights of the American population.
Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848, shortly after his parents, Rebecca and George Latimer left Virginia to live and raise children on free soil. As a free man, George worked as a barber and wallpaper hanger to support his three sons, daughter, and wife. Lewis, the youngest child, attended grammar school, where he showed excellent ability in reading and drawing. When he was not in class, Latimer spent time working with his father as other children did in the 19th century. In 1857, with the recent discussions regarding land ownership in the Supreme Court, George moved away to protect the safety of his family since he did not have paperwork to prove that he was a free man.
Latimer’s mother worked tirelessly to keep her family together but did not have the financial means to provide the children with all the resources they needed. She sent Lewis and his brothers to a state-run farm school that taught young teens vocational skills, while his sister lived with acquaintances. Lewis and his brother William wanted to grow intellectually and form their own career paths, so they planned to return to Boston and find work after attending school. Once he returned to Boston, Latimer got a job working as an office boy at a legal firm when he was 13 and also helped his mother with housekeeping tasks.
In his father’s absence, Lewis falsified his age and joined the U.S. Navy in 1864 when he was just 16 years old (this was during the Civil War). He was assigned to the U.S.S. Massasoit, a gunboat stationed off Confederate ports to prevent trading with foreign countries. After he was honorably discharged in July of 1865, Crosby, Halsted & Gould Solicitors of American and Foreign Patents, a company that specialized in helping inventors protect their patents, was looking for “a boy with a taste for drawing.” Lewis was hired and mastered mechanical drawing by observing the draftsman at work, reading books on the subject, and practicing with second-hand T squares, triangles, compasses and rulers that he purchased. The hand drawings were done in ink, so it was important that a draftsman did not make mistakes. After spending months learning the trade, Lewis requested and was given an opportunity to showcase his skills. The company was so impressed with his work that he was promoted from an office boy position that paid $3 a week to head draftsman, earning $20 a week.
After the Civil War, many inventors and innovative individuals were designing new technologies that revolutionized America, securing many patents in growing industries. While working as a draftsman at the legal firm, Latimer met Alexander Graham Bell who wanted him to draft his plans for a new invention, the telephone. Many other individuals were working on very similar communication devices and Bell was in a race to receive the first patent. Latimer spent many late-night hours with Bell forming blueprints and submitting applications that allowed him to file his patent on February 14, 1876 – just hours within rival, Elisha Gray’s patent submission.
At the same time, Latimer was also working on his own innovations. In 1874, he received his first co-patent, along with Charles M. Brown for a toilet that emptied through a trap door activated by the lid (Patent No. 147,363). The invention protected passengers from dust and debris that came up into the water closet from the exposed tracks, making it safer to use.
In 1879, Latimer decided to leave Boston and moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut where he got a job at the Fallensbees Machine Shop. When Latimer was working at the shop, inventor Hiram Maxim – known for inventing the first portable, fully automatic machine gun and mouse trap – stopped by and observed Latimer’s work, inquiring where he had developed such solid drafting skills. Latimer shared with the inventor that he was the previous head draftsman at Crosby and Gould, a firm that Maxim had once worked for. Upon hearing this, the inventor invited Latimer to work as a mechanical draftsman at his Electric Lighting Company in Brooklyn, New York in 1880. In this new role, Latimer had a chance to become familiar with the field of electric incandescent lighting, an area where there was fierce competition to secure patents.
While working on perfecting lightbulbs and lamps, the entrepreneur traveled to U.S. cities and abroad, supervising the installation and production of Maxim equipment. Maxim was the chief rival of world-famous inventor, Thomas Edison. Edison had tested various materials, such as cardboard, cotton, hair, paper, thread and bamboo for use as lightbulb filaments. By passing electricity through the bulb, Edison created a light that glowed throughout a room. Maxim’s goal was to improve on Edison’s bulb, so Latimer focused on creating a longer lasting electric lamp by covering the filament with a cardboard envelope that gave them a longer life. Not only did Latimer install a lighting system in the United States, but he designed systems in Montreal and London as well. While the systems were being installed in Montreal, Latimer learned French to help guide and teach his workers. In just nine months, Latimer’s factory, the Maxim-Weston Electric Light Company was in full production.
By 1884, Latimer started working for Thomas Edison and guided him through the process of properly filing patent forms at the U.S. Patent Office. He dedicated time to the engineering and legal department of the Edison Electric Light Company. During his day-to-day work, Latimer drafted sketches and documents for Edison’s inventions and looked over plans to determine if there were any patent infringements. He was also in charge of managing the company library and collected information from around the world, translating data in French and German to protect the company from any international challenges. During his employment with Thomas Edison, the world-famous inventor encouraged Latimer to write a book, titled “Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.” This work was published in 1890 and explained how an incandescent lamp produced light in a simplified manner that was easy to understand. Throughout his career, he accumulated patents for an arc lamp; a cooling and disinfecting device; and a locking rack for coats, hats, and umbrellas.
In 1906, Latimer moved his family from Brooklyn to a 2.5 story house in Flushing, where he spent the next two decades. He worked for a patent consulting firm until 1922, when failing eyesight ended his career. He also taught mechanical engineering, drawing and English to immigrants at the Henry Street Settlement House, served as an officer of the famed Civil War Veterans’ organization and Grand Army of the Republic. To honor his work, on February 11, 1918, Latimer became one of the 28 charter members of the Edison Pioneers and was the only black man in this prestigious organization. Throughout his career, he followed advice he had written as a young boy, “Good habits and good manners are powerful means of advancement that rarely fail to bring reward.”
In his spare time, Latimer and his wife, Mary, entertained leaders of New York’s black community and corresponded with Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and other activists to improve the lives of those in surrounding communities. Mary passed away in 1924. The following year, his children had a book of his poems printed for his 77th birthday. In a Fort Myers Press interview with his granddaughter, Winifred Norman, she stated, “He was a renaissance man. He taught himself French and German so he could reach publications in those languages. He was a musician, an artist, a poet.”
Today, visitors can learn more about Lewis Latimer in an exhibit dedicated to him inside the 15,000-square-foot museum.