Black History Month Pathfinder Profile: Lewis Latimer

Lewis Howard Latimer was an inventor, engineer, author and patent draftsman. He is best known for making the widespread use of electric light possible by inventing an improved carbon filament design for Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulbs.

He taught himself mechanical drawing and later drafted the drawings that Alexander Graham Bell used to patent the first telephone in 1876. In 1880, Latimer began working for the United States Electric Lighting Company with the famous inventor Hiram Maxim. While working with Maxim, Latimer received patents for a carbon filament for the incandescent light bulb, the electric lamp, and “for the process of manufacturing carbons.” He sold the patent for the “Incandescent Electric Light Bulb with Carbon Filament” to the United States Electric Company in 1881.

While Edison invented the lightbulb, Latimer’s invention made electric lighting practical and affordable for the average household. His groundbreaking invention came at a time when there were conflicting opinions on how to efficiently power growing urban centers. Latimer was an expert on electric lighting. He wrote the first book on electric lighting, Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System and supervised the installation of public electric lights throughout New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London. This drastically improved the quality of life as people moved away from candle light.

Latimer began working for Thomas Edison in 1884. He worked in the legal department of the Edison Electric Light Co. as the chief draftsman and patent specialist. He also became involved in Edison’s infringement lawsuits doing patent searches and testifying in court on Edison’s behalf.

Among his other inventions, Latimer designed an improved railroad car bathroom, an early air conditioning unit, the threaded socket for his improved bulb, a safety elevator, and locking racks for hats, coats, and umbrellas. As a black American in the 19th century, Latimer didn’t get as much notoriety for his work or his expertise.

The Ellison for Congress team salutes Lewis Latimer for his commitment to improving the quality of life.