Many an engineer’s story is one of rags to riches – or vice versa. For Lewis Howard Latimer, the climb was even harder, but stoically undertaken.
Latimer did not start with many advantages in life. His father and mother were runaway slaves from the US South, who had escaped to the free North under the decks of a ship. However, upon arrival in Boston, his father George had been recognised and, with a bounty out from his ‘owners’, was arrested and detained, pending trial as a fugitive. George was lucky to have made it to Boston, as he was defended in court by the Boston abolitionists who, in the face of his imminent return south, ‘bought’ him for $400 from his previous ‘owner’ and set him free – although without any papers to prove it.
This act at least enabled his son Lewis Latimer to be born free in Massachusetts in September 1848. Lewis excelled at school and had ambitions way beyond what his parents could imagine. However, in 1857, following the Dred Scott case, where the Supreme Court ruled that a slave could not sue for his freedom, his father disappeared, perhaps afraid that, without papers, the same thing might happen to him. That left Latimer’s mother struggling to bring up four children in poverty.
Yet change was coming. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Latimer joined the Union Navy, while still only 15, and this provided him with a springboard to a better life. Returning to Boston with an excellent Navy record but no qualifications beyond his patriotic Unionism, he found a job as an office boy in a patent law firm, where he taught himself technical drawing. Having noticed his precocious skills, the partners promoted him to draughtsman and later head draughtsman, on six times his original salary, enough to enable him to marry Mary Wilson in November 1873.
His work on drafting patents inspired Latimer to begin inventing for himself. His first successful patent for an improved train toilet might have greatly enhanced the comfort of those travelling west had he had the money to commercialise it. However, as a young black draughtsman, this was not readily forthcoming, even in Boston.
Now in demand and with famous friends, Latimer moved with his family to Bridgeport, Connecticut to work for industrialist Hiram Maxim at his US Electrical Lighting Company. At the time, the race to produce a viable incandescent light bulb was heating up. Maxim’s main competitor, Edison, had produced a workable bulb but its lifespan was only a matter of hours. Maxim asked Latimer to work on improving the filament, which was typically a carbonised piece of paper or thread. Latimer responded by inventing a cardboard sheath to encase and protect the thin carbon filament.
With electrical street lighting now becoming a practical possibility, Maxim sent Latimer to supervise installation of the first electrical plants in New York, Philadelphia and Montreal (where he learnt French), as well as to London to oversee the building of a lamp factory.
Latimer also continued to evolve the light bulb, patenting a new support for arc lights, an improvement to manufacturing filaments, and a new way to attach the carbonised filament, as well as numerous general procedures to improve ovens that baked the filaments, preparation of inert gases for the bulbs, glassblowing equipment and a new screw socket and switch.
Not surprisingly, the work brought Latimer to the attention of Edison himself, who – seeing his brilliant eye for patents and his knowledge of electrical lighting – employed him to defend his patents and search out infringements, often appearing as a witness in court. Latimer also found time to write a complete revision to the electrical lighting handbook of the day, encouraged by his new employer. He was the only black member of the exclusive group of ‘Edison Pioneers’ who worked with Edison in the early years.
An end to Latimer’s inventing only came with failing eyesight in 1922, when he retired to write poetry, paint and play the flute. He died in 1928, having achieved the American dream from the hardest of backgrounds.