Lewis Howard Latimer

(1848 – 1928)

The very first electric light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison.  But Edison’s bulb had serious problems.  It burned out quickly and was easily damaged.  Lewis Latimer, a Black American, invented the first long life bulb.  Latimer patented it in 1881.  Later Edison asked Latimer to join the team of inventors known as “The Edison Pioneers.”

Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1848, Latimer was the son of runaway slaves.  He was in the Union Navy during the American Civil War.  After the war he found it hard to get a job.  In the end, he found a position as an office boy in a small legal firm specialising in patent laws.  The firm employed a number of draftsmen who drafted the technical drawing of the inventions.

Latimer both admired and was fascinated by the drawings that came into the office.  He bought his own tools and, with the help of library books, he taught himself how to draw so well that he soon became a draughtsman for the firm. 

Not long after this, Latimer became close friends with Alexander Graham Bell.  Bell invented the telephone. It was Latimer who made the patent drawings (blueprint) for the first telephone.

In 1879 Latimer met Herman Maxim, who invented the machine gun.  Maxim was then head of an electric lighting company, and Latimer now learned a lot more about electricity. In 1880 Latimer left the law firm to join Maxim at the United States Electrical Lighting Company in Connecticut.

Two years later, he invented his light bulb, the Latimer Lam, and afterwards wrote the first text-book on electric lighting.

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Maxim set up factories to make some of Latimer’s inventions.  Latimer was in charge of setting up one of these factories in London.  He also set up street lighting in New York and Montreal, Canada.

Latimer was a man of many parts – inventor, draughtsman, musician, poet and artist.  He was also active in the Civil Rights Movement.

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