Inventor and engineer Lewis Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848. He collaborated with science greats Hiram Maxim and Thomas Edison. One of Latimer’s greatest inventions was the carbon filament, a vital component of the light bulb. His inventions didn’t stop there, working with Alexander Graham Bell, Latimer helped draft the patent for Bell’s design of the telephone. This genius also designed an improved railroad car bathroom and an early air conditioning unit. So the next time you’re escaping a hot day inside your cool house, don’t forget to thank Lewis Latimer.
Lewis Howard Latimer Biography
Lewis Howard Latimer (September 4, 1848 – December 11, 1928) was a Black American inventor and patent draftsman. His inventions included an evaporative air conditioner, an improved process for manufacturing carbon filaments for light bulbs, and an improved toilet system for railroad cars. In 1884, he joined the Edison Electric Light Company where he worked as a draftsman and wrote the first book on electric lighting. His house is located near the Latimer Projects and is a historic house located at 34-41 137th Street in Flushing, Queens, New York City.
Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848, the youngest of the four children of Rebecca Latimer (1823–1910) and George Latimer (1818–1897). Before Lewis was born, his mother and father escaped from slavery in Virginia and fled to Chelsea, Massachusetts on October 4, 1842. The day they arrived in Boston, George was recognized by a colleague of his former slave owner and was arrested a few days later, on October 20, 1842. George’s trial received great notoriety, he was represented by Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. He was eventually able to purchase his freedom and live with his family in Chelsea, Massachusetts.
When Latimer was young he spent time (before his father left) helping his father in his barbershop. Lewis Latimer also spent time at night hanging wallpaper with his father.
When Latimer was 10, his mother decided to split the family after the Dred Scott case ruled individual slaves needed to prove they had the consent of their owner in order to legally become free; many slaves at the time such as the Latimers had lived free by escaping into free states and becoming state citizens who often would not be sent back to their owners if apprehended by interstate slave catchers. This caused Lewis’s father, George Latimer, to flee for his family’s safety because he had nothing to prove he was free from enslavement. So, he fled in order to protect his family.
After his father had to flee and his mother had to split the family, Lewis and his brothers were sent to a farm school, and his sisters were sent to stay with a family friend.
Lewis Howard Latimer joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 15 on September 16, 1863, and served as a Landsman on the USS Massasoit. After receiving an honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy on July 3, 1865, he gained employment as an office boy with a patent law firm, Crosby Halstead and Gould, with a $3.00 per week salary. He learned how to use a set square, ruler, and other drafting tools. Later, after his boss recognized his talent for sketching patent drawings, Latimer was promoted to the position of head draftsman earning $20.00 a week by 1872 ($438.59 today).
Latimer married Mary Wilson Lewis on November 15, 1873, in Fall River, Massachusetts. She was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the daughter of Louisa M. and William Lewis. The couple had two daughters, Emma Jeanette (1883–1978) and Louise Rebecca (1890–1963). Jeanette married Gerald Fitzherbert Norman, the first black person hired as a high school teacher in the New York City public school system, and had two children: Winifred Latimer Norman (1914–2014), a social worker who served as the guardian of her grandfather’s legacy, and Gerald Latimer Norman (1911–1990), who became an administrative law judge.
In 1879, Latimer and his wife, Mary, moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, along with his mother, Rebecca, and his brother, William. They settled in a neighborhood called “Little Liberia,” which had been established in the early 19th century by free blacks. (The landmarked Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses are the last surviving buildings on their original foundations of this community.) Other family members already living there were his brother, George A. Latimer, and his wife, Jane, and his sister, Margaret, and her husband, Augustus T. Hawley, and their children. Mary died in Bridgeport in 1924.
Inventions and technical work
In 1874, Latimer co-patented (with Charles M. Brown) an improved toilet system for railroad cars called the Water Closet for Railroad Cars (U.S. Patent 147,363). In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell employed Latimer, then a draftsman at Bell’s patent law firm, to draft the necessary drawings required to receive a patent for Bell’s telephone.
In 1879, he moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and was hired as assistant manager and draftsman for the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, a company owned by Hiram Maxim, a rival of Thomas A. Edison. While Latimer was there he invented a modification to the process for making carbon filaments which aimed to reduce breakages during the carbonization process. This modification consisted of placing filament blanks inside a cardboard envelope during carbonization. While in England on behalf of the Maxim light company he taught the entire process for making Maxim lights, including glassblowing in 9 months in order to get the factory up and running.
In 1884, he was invited to work with Thomas Edison. Along with the work he did with Edison, he was also responsible for translating data into German and French, as well as gathering that information.
Latimer also developed a forerunner of the air conditioner called “Apparatus for cooling and disinfecting”. In 1894, Latimer pursued a patent on a safety elevator which prevented the riders from falling out and into the shaft. In 1924, after the Board of Patent Control dissolved Latimer went on to work with Hammer and Schwartz until he retired.
On February 11, 1918 Latimer joined the Edison Pioneers. Lewis Latimer was the first person of color to join this group of 100.
Latimer received a patent on September 13th, 1881 for the “Electric Lamp”, an improved design for producing light using electricity, and another on January 17, 1882 for the “Process of Manufacturing Carbons”, an improved method for the production of carbon filaments for lightbulbs.
The Edison Electric Light Company in New York City hired Latimer in 1884 as a draftsman and an expert witness in patent litigation on electric lights. While at Edison, Latimer wrote the first book on electric lighting, entitled Incandescent Electric Lighting (1890), and supervised the installation of public electric lights throughout New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London.
When that company was combined in 1892 with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company to form General Electric, he continued to work in the legal department. In 1911, he became a patent consultant to law firms.
U.S. Patent 147,363 “Improvement in water-closets for railroad-cars” (with Brown, Charles W.), February 10, 1874
Lewis Howard Latimer joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 15 on September 16, 1863, and served as a Landsman on the USS Massasoit. After receiving an honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy on July 3, 1865, he gained employment as an office boy with a patent law firm, Crosby Halstead and Gould, with a $3.00 per week salary. He learned how to use a set square, ruler, and other drafting tools. Later, after his boss recognized his talent for sketching patent drawings, Latimer was promoted to the position of head draftsman earning $20.00 a week by 1872.
Even though Latimer was no longer active military he remained patriotic. He was an early and active member in the veteran organization, Grand Army of the Republic. He acted as secretary and adjutant.
A book of poetry called Poems of Love and Life.
A technical book, Incandescent Electric Lighting (1890).
Various pieces for African-American journals.
A petition to Mayor Seth Low to restore a member to the Brooklyn School Board.
Latimer played the violin and flute, painted portraits and wrote plays.
He was an early advocate of civil rights. In 1895 Lewis wrote a statement in connection with the National Conference of Colored Men about equality, security, and opportunity.
For 25 years, from 1903 until his death in 1928, Latimer lived with his family in a home on Holly Avenue in what is known now as East Flushing section of Queens, New York. Latimer died on December 11, 1928, at the age of 80. Approximately sixty years after his death, his home was moved from Holly Avenue to 137th Street in Flushing, Queens, which is about 1.4 miles northwest of its original location.
Latimer is an inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work on electric filament manufacturing techniques.
The Latimer family house is on Latimer Place in Flushing, Queens. It was moved from the original location to a nearby small park and turned into the Lewis H. Latimer House Museum in honor of the inventor.
Latimer was a founding member of the Flushing, New York, Unitarian Church.
A set of apartment houses in Flushing are called “Latimer Gardens”.
P.S. 56 in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, is named Lewis H. Latimer School in Latimer’s honor.
An invention program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, is named after him.
On May 10, 1968 a school in Brooklyn, New York was rededicated to The Lewis H. Latimer School in his memory.
In 1988, a committee was formed, the Lewis H. Latimer Committee, in order to save his home in Flushing, New York
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