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Just Imagine…Innovations Better than the First

Lewis Latimer (1848-1928)

Thomas Edison is widely known as the most prolific inventor in US history. His invention of the lightbulb is credited with lighting America. What is less well known is that Edison’s lightbulb only lasted for a very short period of time. It was Lewis Latimer’s invention of a longer-lasting filament that made the lightbulb a practical reality.

Lewis Latimer was the youngest of four children of parents who escaped slavery. His formal education was limited because he needed to help support his family. At the age of 15, he joined the US Navy during the Civil War. After leaving the Navy, he got a job with a patent law firm as an office assistant. At the law firm, he learned drafting skills, the ability to draw precise and detailed technical diagrams, by observing others. Based on his drafting skills, he was eventually promoted to the position of head draftsman at the firm.

In addition to his drafting skills, Latimer was also an inventor. He co-patented an improved toilet for train cars. He often collaborated with inventors who came to the office for patent work. One of his collaborations was with Alexander Graham Bell. Latimer drafted the drawings required for Bell’s patent for the telephone.

Latimer left the patent law firm and took a job as a manager for Edison’s chief rival in electric lighting, the US Electric Lighting Company. While at this new job, Latimer developed a longer lasting filament which was cheaper and longer lasting than the filament used in Edison’s bulbs. He received a patent for his invention. He was then asked to manage the production of the filament. He faced tremendous discrimination because workers did not want to be managed by a black man.

Latimer eventually started working with Thomas Edison, especially helping Edison protect his patents from infringement. He became an “Edison Pioneer” – a group that worked closely with Edison on his ideas.

Latimer also continued working on his own inventions. His most notable invention became the forerunner of the air conditioner. He was also a playwright, an artist, and played the violin and the flute. He was selected to become a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Why is it that the name of Lewis Latimer is not as well-known as Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell? His role was critical to these major innovations. But when the 25th anniversary of the lightbulb was celebrated, his name was never mentioned. Just imagine how our national culture would have changed if Lewis Latimer and other African Americans were recognized for their achievements.

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“We create our future, by well improving present opportunities: however few and small they are.” — Lewis Latimer

This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.