September 13, 1881:
On this day Louis Latimer patents his electric lamp with a carbon filament. His most famous patent the “Process of Manufacturing Carbons,” was an improved production method for carbon filaments used in light bulbs. This new process for creating a carbon filament was an improvement on Thomas Edison’s original paper filament that would burn out quickly. In 1884, the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City hired Latimer as a draftsman and expert witness in patent litigation on electric lights. Not only did he invent a better filament for the electric light bulb and the process to make it, he also invented a threaded wooden socket for his light bulb.
Lewis Latimer is considered one of the 10 most important Black inventors of all time, not only for the sheer number of inventions created and patents secured but also for the magnitude of importance for his most famous discovery. Latimer was born on September 4, 1848 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His parents were George and Rebecca Latimer, both runaway slaves who migrated to Massachusetts in 1842 from Virginia. George Latimer was captured by his slave owner, who was determined to take him back to Virginia. His situation gained great notoriety, even reaching the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Eventually George was purchased by abolition supporters who set him free.
Lewis served in the United States Navy for the Union during the Civil War, assigned to the U.S.S. Massasoit gunboat and received an honorable discharge on July 3, 1865. After his discharge he sought employment throughout Boston, Massachusetts and eventually gained a position as an office boy with a patent law firm, Crosby and Gould earning $3.00 each week. After observing Latimer’s ability to sketch patent drawings, he was eventually promoted to the position of head draftsman earning $20.00 a week. In addition to his newfound success, Latimer found additional happiness when he married Mary Wilson in November of 1873.
Throughout the rest of his life, Latimer continued to try to devise ways of improving everyday living for the public, eventually working in efforts to improve the civil rights of Black citizens within the United States. He also painted portraits and wrote poetry and music for friends and family. Lewis Latimer died on December 11, 1928 and left behind a legacy of achievement and leadership that much of the world owes thanks.
Notable Patents and Contributions
- 147,363: Water closet for railroad cars (1874)
- 247,097: Improvement to electric lamp (1881)
- 252,386: Process for manufacturing carbon filament (1882)
- 255,212 Arc light: globe support (1882)
- 334,078: Apparatus for cooling and disinfecting (1886)
- 557,076: Device for locking hats, coats and umbrellas on hanging racks (1895)
- 781,890: Lamp fixture (1910)
In his patent role, he was responsible for preparing the mechanical drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s patent application for his telephone. Thomas Edison took note of his work for Bell and on the light bulb and hired him in 1884. Latimer, in fact, holds the distinction of being the only African American member of the Edison Pioneers.
He continued to work on electric lighting, and in 1890 published Incandescent Electric Lighting, a technical engineering book that became the standard guide for lighting engineers.
- 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 is named after him