Updated 26-XII-2018

Lewis Howard Latimer

This article was written by fellow lamp engineer and collector Edward J. Covington, and originally appeared on his own website of biographical sketches of persons involved in the lamp industry. Following his passing in February 2017, and with kind permission of his family, Ed's words have been preserved here in the hope of maintaining access to his writings for the benefit of subsequent generations.

Lewis Howard Latimer at his work as a Draftsman7

It is an unfortunate fact of life that not all persons who live a life that is worthy of emulation become household names. The passage of time plays a large role in the continuance of the anonymity. The advent of the web site should result in this condition being improved. In this regard one person shall be considered here. That person, Lewis Howard Latimer (1848 - 1928), certainly deserves to be better known.

This writer will not consider details of Latimer's life in depth; others have already done that. Instead, brief mention will be made of some of the aspects of his life that should be of interest to those persons who delve into early lamp history.

Lewis Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He was the fourth child of George and Rebecca Latimer. George, his father, had been a slave in Virginia. Lewis, therefore, came from humble surroundings but that fact didn't suppress his interest in reading, writing stories, drawing and writing poetry. At age 16 he joined the U.S. Navy and served on the U.S.S. Massasoit.

Later, Latimer became a draftsman and it was he who made the drawings for Alexander Graham Bell for his famous U.S. Patent 174,465 issued 7 Mar 1876. That patent ushered in the age of the telephone.

In 1880 Latimer joined the United States Electric Lighting Company under Hiram S. Maxim. Quoting from the booklet put out by the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation in 19733:

"While there, Latimer invented and patented a process for making carbon filaments for light bulbs. He taught the process to company workers, and soon it was being used in factory production. Latimer also assisted in installing Maxim lighting systems in New York City, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London. "During the installation of lighting in Montreal, where a lot of people spoke only French, Latimer learned the language in order to competently instruct the workers. In London, he set up the first factory for the Maxim-Weston Electric Light Company. That required him to teach the workmen all the processes for making Maxim lamps, including glassblowing. In a brief nine months, Latimer had the factory in full production."
The following images were scanned from the booklet Lewis Howard Latimer - A Biography and Related experiments You Can Do3.

In 1882 Latimer left the employ of Maxim to seek other challenges. In 1884 he joined the Edison Electric Light Company to begin a notable career. He was named draftsman-engineer. In 1890 Latimer co-authored a book1 titled Incandescent Electric Lighting - A Practical Description of the Edison System. One of the co-authors was John W. Howell. It was a small book, of dimensions 3-3/4 x 5-3/4 inches, the frontispiece of which is pictured below:

In the year 1890 Latimer joined the Edison Legal Department and was involved in testifying in legal cases. He was such a member in New York in 1893 during the famous Oconto Incandescent Lamp Case. In 1896, when the Board of Patent Control of GE and Westinghouse was formed, Latimer became its chief draftsman and he continued in that position until 1911. In that same year Latimer joined the consulting firm of Edwin W. Hammer.

Lewis H. Latimer passed away in his home in Flushing, Long Island. A tribute to Latimer was made in 1928 by William H. Meadowcroft, historian for the Edison Pioneers, when he said:

"Lewis Howard Latimer was of the colored race, the only one in our organization, and was one of those to respond to the initial call that led to the formation of the Edison Pioneers, January 24th, 1918. Broadmindedness, versatility in the accomplishment of things intellectual and cultural, a linguist, a devoted husband and father, all were characteristic of him, and his genial presence will be missed from our gatherings...We hardly mourn his inevitable going so much as we rejoice in pleasant memory at having been associated with him in a great work for all peoples under a great man." In April, 2000 the writer visited a lighting exhibition in the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, D.C. titled "Lighting a Revolution". In the display case labelled "Electric Light" there were several early incandescent lamps of various manufacture. Also in that case were three photographs of persons who were significant contributors to developments of the lamp. The photographs were of Sir Joseph Swan, Dr. Walther Nernst and Lewis Howard Latimer.

References & Bibliography
  1. "Incandescent Electric Lighting - A Practical Description of the Edison System", L. H. Latimer, D. Van Nostrand Company, New York, 1890.
  2. "Lewis H. Latimer," Obituary, Electrical World, Vol.92 No.25, 22 Dec 1928, p.1271.
  3. "Lewis Howard Latimer, A Biography and Related Experiments You Can Do", Publication of the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation, 2000 Second Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48226, 1973, 32 pages.
  4. "Lewis Latimer (Black Americans of Achievement)", Winifred Latimer Norman & Lily Patterson, 101 pages, 1993, Chelsea House Pub., ISBN: 0791019772.
  5. "Lewis Latimer: Creating Bright Ideas (Innovative Minds)", Eleanor H. Ayer, 112 pages, Jan 1997, Raintree/Steck Vaughn, ISBN: 0817244077.
  6. "Lewis Howard Latimer", Glenette Tilley Turner, (Pioneers in Change Series).
  7. Black History Wiki