The Hidden History of Lewis Latimer and the Electric Light Bulb

It’s very rare for someone to invent something revolutionary without considerable assistance, and this definitely holds true of Thomas Edison, perhaps most famous for his work on electric lighting. Another man played a key role in the development of light bulbs and electric infrastructure, though: black engineer Lewis Latimer. Latimer’s story isn’t as widely told, despite the fact that he led a fascinating life and should rightly be remembered as one of the most notable engineers of his era — and because his work marked a key point in Black history, as one of the first men of color working in engineering in the US.

Latimer was born in Massachusetts in 1848 to two parents who had fled slavery, and he remained passionate about the causes of abolition and equal rights throughout his life. In the wake of the Dred Scott decision, his father fled, leaving his mother supporting four children, a burden she wasn’t able to bear on her own. Ultimately, Latimer wound up in state care before fleeing much as his parents had done before him, serving in the Civil War (on the Union side, perhaps needless to say), and then landing a job with a firm specializing in patent law.

Earning just three dollars a week, Latimer paid close attention to the machinations of patent law, but he was especially interested in mechanical drawings. In an era when many educational opportunities were closed to those of African descent, he began teaching himself, developing the skills needed to create highly precise, detailed, informative drawings to submit alongside patent applications. His supervisors promoted him to a draftsman position and raised his salary to $20 a week. Latimer never looked back, becoming instrumental in the submission of Alexander Graham Bell’s patent application for the telephone, but, more importantly, playing a key role in Thomas Edison’s research.

Latimer actually started out working for one of Edison’s rivals on a process of developing a bulb that would last longer, a significant problem at the time. Eventually, he was wooed away by Edison, but over the course of his career he racked up a string of patents for various lighting technologies, including filaments and fixtures. Throughout the course of his career, Latimer had an interest in public service and a focus on improving living conditions for underserved populations — later in life, he taught drafting and other subjects to immigrants in New York while engaging in his passions for poetry and music.

The memory of this well-rounded inventor may have been eclipsed by that of the white men he worked with, but it doesn’t make his accomplishments any less notable.

The case of Lewis Latimer is a reminder to delve deeper into our hidden history and to ensure that buried histories are unearthed not just during Black History Month, but throughout the year. Notably, Latimer was the only man of color among the group known as the “Edison pioneers,” but his fascinating story has been nearly erased from the mythology surrounding Edison, a man often depicted as a lone wolf bravely venturing forth into the world of electricity. Edison in fact had numerous rivals — and lots of help.

Photo credit: James Bower

59 comments

sandra vito
Sandra V2 years ago

gracias

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Magdalena J.
Past Member 2 years ago

Thank you!

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Winn Adams
Winn A2 years ago

This is one amazing story.

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Winn Adams
Winn A2 years ago

Thanks

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Bill Eagle
Bill Eagle2 years ago

Latimer was a remarkable man and deserves a place in history. His big problems were that he was black and worked for Edison. Edison was very good at taking credit for the achievements of others and exploiting the people who worked for him.

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Natasha Salgado
Past Member 2 years ago

I just learned something new--thanks!

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Fi T.
Past Member 2 years ago

Treasure our resources, anyway

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Sjors S.
Sjors S2 years ago

Fascinating read. Thanks for the info!

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Marie W.
Marie W2 years ago

Look at herstory- men get all the credit for woman's inventions and work.

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Dt Nc
Dt Nc2 years ago

Thanks for the enlightening article. Edison was never a genius, he was a shrewd business man who preyed on the vulnerabilities and naivety of true genius and pioneers like Tesla and Lewis Latimer. He usurped the innovations of others to enrich and build his mythology, he is a fraud. He was the Steve Jobs of his era.

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