Lewis Latimer made history many times. First, Alexander Graham Bell won the telephone race thanks to Latimer’s crucial help. Then Latimer went on to make light bulbs better. He created their carbon filament. In fact, before Lewis Latimer’s patent, bulbs only lasted about 14 hours. Thanks to his carbon filament invention, their light shines much longer.
Later in his career, Thomas Edison honored Latimer as a founding member of the Edison Pioneers. An iconoclast, he was the only black man among 28 inducted. A true genius, Lewis Latimer did all this with no formal education. The child of famous fugitive slaves, his youth was no picnic. In truth, he made history even before birth.
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Lewis Latimer – Historic Family
When Rebecca Latimer got pregnant, she told her husband, George, she wanted a free baby. Because they were enslaved in Norfolk, Virginia, it was only a dream at that moment. But determined George made it reality. In fact, George Latimer didn’t just alter his family’s status. He sparked the entire abolitionist movement.
Freeing George and Rebecca Latimer took the time and care of many thoughtful people. For example, George rallied the support of such esteemed abolitionists as Frederick Douglass. Thanks to their help, the Latimers started over in Boston. The fight to free George Latimer then inspired the famous Latimer Journal. Fifteen years before the Dred Scott Decision, this newspaper promoted abolitionist causes. These missions included protections for fugitive slaves like George Latimer.
George’s son, Lewis Latimer, was thus born free from documented slavery in 1848. His parents risked their lives and inspired abolitionism to earn their son’s freedom. Lewis rose to these high standards and made history himself. In fact, he brought even more esteem to the Latimer family name with his world-changing accomplishments.
Ace Draftsman & Patent Inventor
Inventors must race to be first in their field. They also battle to best each other’s inventions. Competition awaits around every corner. Lewis Latimer met all these challenges as a champion inventor each time. After fighting in the Civil War, he developed a passion for mechanical drawing. This led Latimer to work as Alexander Graham Bell’s right hand draftsman. He then played a crucial role in the race to invent the telephone by Bell’s side.
At the time, several scientists rushed for the historic title “Telephone Inventor”. After all, we don’t say first to finish when we talk about inventors. Many inventors from various backgrounds were on track to invent the telephone. But history only remembers first place. Sometimes these races come down to hours or even minutes between first and second. So, it makes a critical difference to have top players on your team.
A deft partner can help win the race for name recognition. Lewis was that teammate for Bell. Even with no formal schooling, Latimer held masterful ingenuity and skills. From a mere “taste for drawing” as a young man, he developed keen expertise. This was apt preparation for his destined technical career.
Latimer’s Carbon Filament
Word spread about ingenue Latimer. He got exciting work offers. Soon he joined mechanical engineer Hiram S. Maxim at U.S. Electric Lighting. Hiram competed with Thomas Edison at GE. They battled to build a better light bulb. It was the late 1800s and this was the hottest contest in town. Light bulbs were all the buzz. Everyone wanted incandescence. But bulbs were still in a baby stage. They only lasted about 14 hours at the time.
Lewis Latimer was on a long lasting bulb mission. Luckily he had a vision. Hiram hired Latimer for his drawing skill. But there was more to Lewis. Lamps enchanted him. This passion for light was lifelong. It’s notable that Latimer’s writings on the topic are as poetic as they are groundbreaking. That’s saying a lot because his carbon filament patent enlightened all. Thus, Lewis Latimer made everyday life brighter with a single patent. He changed the world and made history all at once.
Enlightening Thomas Edison
After Maxim, Latimer worked at General Electric with Thomas Edison. In fact, it was his connection to Hiram that attracted Edison to Lewis in the first place. That’s because his rivalry with Maxim in the light bulb race shifted into a death match. They had legal disputes up the wazoo. The brilliant Latimer became legal consultant for GE. He was also a key draftsman for the company. As a result, Edison relied on Lewis Latimer.
Edison made Latimer a founding member of his Edison Pioneers in 1918. Lewis was the only black colleague in this elite group. Spot him with them in the picture above. Lewis sits at the very front before the camera. He looks proud aspart of this exclusive set. These were men who made the world a better place. Latimer likely saw this in opposition to his ex-boss Hiram Maxim. That’s because Maxim’s greatest feat was inventing the machine gun. Latimer seemed to prefer more noble pursuits.
Visit the Lewis Latimer House
There are many reasons to check out the Lewis Latimer House. Of course, the story of Lewis himself is reason enough. But more happens there all the time. For instance, right now you’ll find the art exhibition, Race Revolution: Home/Land. This artwork draws parallels between Latimer family history and modern America. The video below speaks about one of the pieces in this poignant exhibit. It’s an apt example of the thoughtful and bold artwork you’ll find there.
Historic House Trust
My Historic House Trust partnership made the Lewis Latimer House experience extra special. I’m excited to see all 23 of their historic home sites across NYC’s 5 boroughs. Travel 367 years of history right along with me! Check ‘em out on their Instagram @hhtnyc and visit their site – http://historichousetrust.org/.