Lewis Latimer (1848-1928) played a pivotal role in the careers of the two best-known inventors of the 20th century – Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Edison. Some history books list Latimer only as the draftsman who drew the blueprints for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patents. But Latimer literally gave light to the world.
Latimer was the son of runaway slaves who settled in Massachusetts. He joined the Union navy at 15 and fought during the Civil War. After being honorably discharged, he found work as a clerk in a Boston patent office. Blessed with artistic ability, Latimer taught himself drafting skills and eventually became the chief draftsman, learning the intricacies of patent law along the way. Latimer drew the Alexander Graham Bell’s plans up on deadline, and Bell was able to rush his application in just hours before the patent contest ended, beating out his competition Elisha Gray. (Didn’t see that in the biopic, did you?)
In the days of candles and kerosene lamps, the age of electricity was just taking hold; and it was a new frontier for inventors and businesses. Latimer moved to Connecticut to work for the U.S. Lighting Co., (later Westinghouse Electric). At the time, the company was owned by Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the machine gun. U.S. Lighting was a top competitor to Thomas A. Edison’s company, Edison Electric (now General Electric).
Edison had invented the glass light bulb, but he hadn’t found a way to keep the bulb burning. In those days the filament was typically made of paper or bamboo and the bulb burned out after a few days. Latimer – working for U.S. Lighting – filed a patent creating the first bulb with a carbon filament – which made electric lighting practical, cheap and universal.
As the industry boomed, Latimer supervised the installation of street lights and electricity in commercial buildings and train stations in Philadelphia, New York, Montreal and London.
Edison lured Latimer to work for him in his legal department, researching and protecting the company’s patents. Latimer was the only Black in the famed Edison Pioneers, an elite group of scientists and inventors. He wrote the first textbook on electric lighting and as an expert, he testified on Edison’s behalf in patent-infringement court cases. Latimer’s own patents included an improved bathroom (water closet) for passenger train cars and an early model of the air conditioner.