“It’s a good thing Thomas Edison was born,” someone once proclaimed. “Or we never would have had the lightbulb.”
Upon hearing the comment, John Jenkins, SPARK Museum president & CEO, smiled and added, “If Thomas Edison had never been born, we wouldn’t have had a lightbulb for another week.”
It’s amazing how many of us assume history’s greatest discoveries and inventions are limited to a few icons like Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell. It’s easy to attribute creations like the telephone or the light bulb to a lone-inventor working in isolation, suddenly getting that “Eureka!” moment, emerging with a device only a genius could conceive.
“The thing we need to keep in mind is that hardly any one person invents any one thing,” says Jenkins. “Any of the major electrical inventions I can think of, all depended upon contributions from a broad range of people.”
It’s that broad range of people and their significant contributions that tell the real story of electrical invention—a story more rich, more complex, more accessible than most of us know.
One of those people was Lewis Latimer.
Lewis Howard Latimer was born to fugitive slaves on September 4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. After enduring an impoverished and turbulent childhood, fifteen-year-old Latimer lied about his age and enlisted in the Union Navy where he served on the USS Massasoit until the end of the Civil War. He would remain a loyal and active patriot the rest of his life.
In 1865, Latimer got a job in Boston as an office boy for Crosby, Halsted & Gould, Solicitors of American & Foreign Patents. He became intrigued with mechanical drawing, and took the initiative to purchase his own drafting instruments and instruction books. He studied and observed, as his diary from the time reads “looked over the draftsman’s shoulder, to see how he used his instruments.” His tenacity paid off and soon he was assisting with the drawings and, at the age of eighteen, became the company’s principal draftsman, a position he would hold for the next ten years.
In 1880 Latimer made his entrance into the growing, highly competitive electrical industry by accepting a position at the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, in Brooklyn, NY. It was here that Latimer pursued the technical and legal knowledge that would later establish him as an excellent draftsman, and an expert patent witness for the likes of Edison, Westinghouse, and General Electric.
In September 1881, Latimer patented a significant improvement in incandescent lamps, including a technique that produced a more durable carbon filament, making the US Electric Lighting Co. a viable competitor to Thomas Edison’s lamps.
In 1883 Edison invited Latimer to join his company, where he soon became their lead patent investigator and part of Edison’s inner circle.
In 1918 Latimer became a founding and only Black member of the Edison Pioneers, a group of former Edison employees who had worked closely with the inventor in his initial years. Here we see a select mix of talented engineers, chemists, inventors, draftsman, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and industrialists—some of the greatest minds in early electrical technology, all in one room, all working together for one man.
Latimer retired in 1924 an accomplished engineer, draftsman, inventor, writer, poet, and esteemed representative of the Black community.
But to many, his greatest accomplishment was his ability to see his reflection in an industry and culture that didn’t look anything like him, and ultimately make it his own.