Today, we meet an electric lighting pioneer. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A battle is going on in New
York City. A pretty 2½-story house in
Flushing is scheduled to be torn down. It's one of
those nice old gingerbread Victorian affairs. The
people fighting its demolition want to see it made
into an historic memorial to black scientists and
engineers -- and especially to Lewis Latimer, who
lived his last twenty years in the house.
Latimer was born in 1848 in Boston. His father had
escaped from slavery in Virginia. Latimer went to
work doing odd jobs when he was 13. At the age of
15 he joined the Union Navy for the rest of the
Civil War. When he was 17 he became an office boy
for a firm of patent attorneys.
Latimer had the sort of omnivorous mind that keeps
finding things to chew upon. When people in the
office weren't looking, he wrote down titles of
drafting texts. Then he went off to find cheap
copies at used bookstores. He taught himself
drafting and was soon making patent drawings for
the firm. In fact he made the patent drawings for
Alexander Graham Bell's new telephone.
But Latimer wasn't content to draw other people's
inventions. In 1879 he went to work for Hiram Maxim
at the American Electric Light Company. That was
the year of Edison's first light-bulb patent. In
1880 Latimer provided Maxim with an improved
incandescent filament. Maxim responded by making
Latimer his chief electrical engineer. He put him
in charge of installing plants and electrical
lighting systems -- both here and in England.
In 1884, after he'd patented several lighting
improvements, Latimer was hired away by the man he
so greatly admired -- by Thomas Edison. Six years
later Latimer published the first book on these
wonderful new lights -- titled Incandescent
Latimer lived until 1928 -- until he was 80. And he
did everything. He wrote poetry and music, he
worked for civil rights, he painted, and he taught
English to immigrants. At one point, he wrote:
Not a bad thought. Lewis Latimer is
telling us we have to stay in the ring. We have to
use our time and abilities. That's certainly what he
did. He started out as a boy with nothing but his
brain and a fine natural optimism. And he made superb
use of them.
Keep in touch with the world;
The days that are ours,
Are fleeting ...
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Hayden, R.C., Black American Inventors.
Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Publishing Co., 1972.
A footnote to this episode, which was written in
1988: The old Latimer House was moved to new
location and, on October 22, 1998, it was opened as
a small science museum which tells Latimer's story.
For more on Latimer, see the following website,
which also features seven other Black
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.