To a great deal, the contributions of black people to world development are overlooked, or less told, unlike their those of their white counterparts. This said many African inventors in human history are today not given credit for their achievements. In view of this, many are kept away from the knowledge of the fact that black people have equally played a part in scientific/technological advancements over millennia.
In this article, the reader will be exposed to the not-so-well, yet the amazing, story of Lewis H. Latimer whose amazing contributions to science/technology led to a series of inventions/innovations in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Lewis H. Latimer: Early Life and Family
The youngest of four children born to George and Rebecca Latimer, Lewis Howard Latimer was born on September 4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Six years before his birth, Latimer’s parents had escaped slavery in Virginia, seeking freedom in Boston, Massachusetts, in October 1842. Both were captured by Gray, the slaver who sought to take them back to Virginia.
They were, however, defended by William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass who with other abolitionists helped to raise $400 for their freedom, and would later raise a family in Chelsea. On September 16, 1863, at the age of 15 (or 16), Lewis Howard Latimer―having lied about his age―joined the Union Navy, serving as a Landsman on the USS Massasoit during the Civil War.
After an honorable discharge from the Navy on July 3, 1865, Crosby Halstead and Gould, a Boston firm of patent solicitors employed him as an office boy, with a $3.00 per week salary. It was not long before his skills earned him a promotion as a head draftsman with a weekly salary of $20.00.
On November 15, 1873, Latimer married Mary Wilson Lewis―daughter of William and Louisa M. Lewis―in Fall River, Massachusetts. Both couples gave birth to two daughters, Emma Jeanette Latimer―who later married Gerald F. Norman, who became the first black high school teacher in the New York City public school system, and Louise R. Latimer. The family lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, before moving into a home on Holly Avenue (now East Flushing section) of Queens, New York, in 1903.
Post-war Employment and Inventions
While at Crosby Halstead and Gould, Latimer learned how to use tools employed for the art of mechanical drawing, and not too long, developed a talent for sketching patent drawings. There also, he met and worked closely with Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell―for whom Latimer drafted the necessary drawings required to receive a patent for his telephone.
Although he was dutiful in assisting others, Latimer nevertheless designed his own inventions. These included an improved railroad car toilet system (co-patented with Charles M. Brown) and an early air conditioning unit.
Due to his exceptional inventive abilities, American inventor and owner of the United States Lighting Company, Hiram Maxim (then a rival of Edison), employed Latimer as assistant manager and draftsman for the company. In 1881, he brought innovation to the light bulb technology by inventing and patenting a carbon filament that, for the first time, allowed lights to shine continuously. Also in that year, the United States Electric Company bought the patent for this invention.
Not willing to let go of this exceptional figure, Edison’s Edison Electric Light Company, in 1884, hired Latimer for his abilities as a draftsman and an expert witness in patent litigation on electric lights. Under the company, he authored the book Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System, published by D. Van Nostrand Company in 1890, and―despite the societal roadblocks faced by a black man in the late nineteenth century―supervised the installation of public electric lights in various cities in the U.S, and overseas in Canada and England.
In 1911, he became a patent consultant to law firms until his retirement in 1922. He was known to play the flute, and to write poetry and plays.
Death and Legacy
Four years after the death of his wife, Lewis Howard Latimer died on December 11, 1928, in Flushing, Queens, New York.
Latimer is an inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work on electric filament manufacturing techniques and had received one of his most distinguished honors, following an invitation to become a charter member of the Edison Pioneers in 1918.
To preserve his memory, his home was moved―approximately sixty years after his death―1.4 miles southwest from Holly Avenue to 137th Street in Flushing, Queens, where it became the Lewis H. Latimer House Museum. Also, a set of apartment houses, a school, and an invention program are all named after him.
SOURCES OF AUTHOR’S INFORMATION
Biography, eds. (2020, July 25). Lewis Howard Latimer. Retrieved July 25, 2020, from Biography.com: https://www.biography.com/inventor/lewis-howard-latimer
Wikipedia, eds. (n.d.). Lewis Howard Latimer. Retrieved July 25, 2020, from Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Howard_Latimer
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