Did you know… Lewis Latimer(September 4, 1848 – December 11, 1928)?
Everyone knows Thomas Edison invented the light bulb… right?
Except that Edison’s light bulb would only last a few days at a time. Lewis Latimer, the only African American on Edison’s staff of inventors, improved the filament of the light bulb to make it practical.
Lewis was born in Chelsea, Mass, son of Rebecca and George Latimer. George had been a slave in Virginia, but escaped to Boston. When George was detected, a judge ordered his return to his master and slavery, but the local community rose up and raised funds to pay for George’s freedom. George went underground after that, afraid of kidnapping and re-enslavement. This meant he couldn’t work publicly at jobs that would help support his family, keeping them in poverty. Lewis managed to attend a colored grammar school, and joined the US Navy at age 15, forging his birth certificate to show an older age, showing an early talent for what would become his trade.
When Lewis returned to Boston after his naval service, his fine hand and attention for detail in drawing caught the attention of Crosby and Gould, patent solicitors. He worked his way up to head draftsman, and eventually was responsible for the drawings in Alexander Graham Bell’s patent application for the telephone.
He married Mary Wilson Lewis on November 15, 1873, in Fall River, Mass, and they had two daughters.
Lewis then moved to the US Electric Light company, working for Hiram Maxim, inventor of the Maxim machine gun. Lewis examined the Maxim incandescent lamp, and figured out a way to use carbon fiber filaments, greatly improving the design. In 1881, he supervised the installation of the electric lights in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal and London.
In 1884, Lewis began working for Thomas Edison. Edison sued a lot of people for patent infringement on the light bulb, and Lewis served as star witness, due to his familiarity with the design, and expert engineering capabilities.
In addition to his engineering and drafting skills, Lewis was a musician, a poet, and author. His book on electricity published in 1890 was called “Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.”
He moved to Flushing, New York in 1903, and lived out the remainder of his days there. His house was moved from its original location and is now a museum at 137th and Leavitt in Flushing, NY. He is an inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work on electric filament manufacturing techniques, and the inventor’s program at MIT is named after him.
So next time you turn on a light… thank Lewis!
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