Lewis Howard Latimer

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Lewis Howard Latimer
Lewis latimer.jpg
Latimer in 1882
Born (1848-09-04)September 4, 1848
Died December 11, 1928(1928-12-11) (aged 80)
Occupation Inventor
Mary Wilson Lewis (m. 1873)
Children Jeanette (Mrs. Gerald F. Norman), Louise
Parent(s) George W. Latimer (1818–1896)
Rebecca Smith (1823–1910)

Lewis Howard Latimer (September 4, 1848 – December 11, 1928) was an African American inventor and draftsman.[1]


Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848, the youngest of four children of Rebecca Latimer (1823 – August 13, 1910) and George Latimer (July 4, 1818 – May 29, 1896).[2] George Latimer had been the slave of James B. Gray of Virginia. George Latimer ran away to freedom in Boston, Massachusetts, in October 1842, along with his wife Rebecca, who had been the slave of another man. When Gray, the owner, appeared in Boston to take them back to Virginia, it became a noted case in the movement for abolition of slavery, gaining the involvement of such abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison. Eventually funds were raised to pay Gray $400 for the freedom of George Latimer.[2]

Lewis Latimer joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 15 on September 16, 1863, and served as a Landsman on the USS Massasoit. After receiving an honorable discharge from the Navy on July 3, 1865, he gained employment as an office boy with a patent law firm, Crosby Halstead and Gould, with a $3.00 per week salary. He learned how to use a set square, ruler and other tools. Later, after his boss recognized his talent for sketching patent drawings, Latimer was promoted to the position of head draftsman earning $20.00 a week by 1872.[2]

He married Mary Wilson Lewis on November 15, 1873, in Fall River, Massachusetts. She was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the daughter of William and Louisa M. Lewis.[3] The couple had two daughters, Emma Jeanette (June 12, 1883 – February 1978) and Louise Rebecca (April 19, 1890 – January 1963). Jeanette married Gerald Fitzherbert Norman, the first black person hired as a high school teacher in the New York City public school system,[4] and had two children: Winifred Latimer Norman (October 7, 1914 – February 4, 2014), a social worker who served as the guardian of her grandfather's legacy; and Gerald Latimer Norman (December 22, 1911 – August 26, 1990), who became an administrative law judge.

For 25 years, from 1903 until his death in 1928, Lewis Howard Latimer lived with his family in a home on Holly Avenue in what is now known as East Flushing section of Queens, New York.[5] Lewis Howard Latimer died on December 11, 1928, at the age of 80.[1] Some sixty years after his death, his home was moved from Holly Avenue to 137th Street in Flushing, Queens, which is about 1.4 miles northwest of its original location.[5]

Technical work and inventions

Light bulb with improved filament patented by Lewis Latimer, 1883

In 1874, he co-patented (with Charles W. Brown) an improved toilet system for railroad cars called the Water Closet for Railroad Cars (U.S. Patent 147,363)[6].

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell employed Latimer, then a draftsman at Bell's patent law firm, to draft the necessary drawings required to receive a patent for Bell's telephone.[7]

In 1879, he moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, with his brother William, his mother Rebecca, and his wife Mary. Other family members, his brother George A. Latimer and his wife Jane, and his sister Margaret and her husband Augustus T. Hawley and their children, were already living there. Lewis was hired as assistant manager and draftsman for the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, a company owned by Hiram Maxim, a rival of Thomas A. Edison.

Latimer received a patent on January 17th 1882 for the "Process of Manufacturing Carbons", an improved method for the production of carbon filaments used in lightbulbs.[8][9]

The Edison Electric Light Company in New York City hired Latimer in 1884, as a draftsman and an expert witness in patent litigation on electric lights. Latimer is credited with an improved process for creating a carbon filament at this time, which was an improvement on Thomas Edison's original paper filament, which would burn out quickly.[10] When that company was combined in 1892 with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company to form General Electric, he continued to work in the legal department. In 1911, he became a patent consultant to law firms.[11]


  • Latimer is an inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work on electric filament manufacturing techniques.[12]
  • 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.[5][13][14]
  • Latimer was a founding member of the Flushing, New York, Unitarian Church.
  • A set of apartment houses in Flushing are called "Latimer Gardens".[15]
  • P.S. 56 in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, is named Lewis H. Latimer School in Latimer's honor.



  1. ^ a b "Lewis H. Latimer Dead. Member of Edison Pioneers. Drew Original Plans for Bell Phone". New York Times. December 13, 1928.
  2. ^ a b c Fouché, Rayvon, Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson, Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8018-7319-3.
  3. ^ Massachusetts Marriages 253:121, Massachusetts Archives, Columbia Point, Boston
  4. ^ Dick, Russell (2009). Black Genius: Inspirational Portraits of America's Black Leaders. New York: Skyhorse Publications. ISBN 978-1-60239-369-1.
  5. ^ a b c "Historic House Trust NYC". Historichousetrust.org. Archived from the original on 2008-02-16.
  6. ^ "Patent Improvement in water-closets for railroad-cars (US147363A)". US Patent - Google Patent.
  7. ^ Clarke, John Henrik (1983). Ivan Van Sertima, ed. Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction. pp. 230–233. ISBN 978-0-87855-941-1.
  8. ^ "Lewis Howard Latimer". National Park Service. Retrieved 2007-06-10.
  9. ^ U.S. Patent 252,386Process Of Manufacturing Carbons. by Lewis H. Latimer . Application filed on Feb 19, 1881, Specified on Jan 17, 1882
  10. ^ "Lemelson-MIT". Mit.edu.
  11. ^ Gates, Henry Louis, & Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, African American Lives, Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 515–516. ISBN 0-19-516024-X
  12. ^ "List of 2006 NIHF inductees". Invent.org. Archived from the original on 2008-05-13.
  13. ^ "A Campaign To Remember An Inventor". New York Times. August 6, 1988.
  14. ^ "An Inventor Who Kept Lights Burning". New York Times. January 29, 1995.
  15. ^ "Latimer Gardens Apartments". Nyc.gov. Archived from the original on 2009-02-24.

Further reading

  • Lewis Howard Latimer; C. J. Field; John White Howell (1890). Incandescent Electric Lighting. D. Van Nostrand company.

External links

  • Lewis Latimer at the IEEE
  • Lewis Howard Latimer: Inventor, Engineer (Mechanical and Electrical)
  • Bibliography about Latimer and scans of pages from his book
  • Lewis Latimer: Renaissance Man by Luvenia George for the Smithsonian Institution's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
  • Teachers' guide by Luvenia George on Latimer, published by the Smithsonian Institution's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
  • "Blueprint for Change", a 1995 exhibition honoring Latimer at the which holds a collection of his papers and artifacts.
  • Lewis Latimer biography at About.com
  • Profile of Lewis Latimer – The Black Inventor Online Museum
  • Lewis Howard Latimer at Find a Grave
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