By Kelvin Muhia
Although many African Americans in the 19th century were victims of slavery, some of them were lucky enough to buy their freedom and showcase their brilliance and expertise to the world.
During this time, Lewis Howard Latimer was among African Americans who enjoyed a long career as a draftsman in electrical engineering. A brilliant engineer, contributor, and inventor, Lewis H. Latimer was among the few engineers who made their contributions in making the electrical illumination a reality during the last quarter of the 19th century. Working hand in hand with influential inventors such as Thomas Alva Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, Lewis Latimer was the first African American inventor and engineer to be given eight patents for his innovative work. In this post, we will review some notable facts and accomplishments about Latimer’s life and legacy.
- Lewis Latimer was born on September 4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He was the son of George and Rebecca Latimer, who were free slaves. Six years before his birth, his parents escaped from slavery, but were captured and tried. However, his father was defended by abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, who helped him to purchase his freedom.
- At the age of 10, Latimer’s father disappeared, forcing the young teenager to forgo his education in order to help his mother raise his four siblings. At the age of 16, Latimer enlisted in the United States Navy to serve during the Civil War.
- After his service in the United States Navy, Latimer was employed as an office boy at a firm owned by Crosby and Gould. During this time, he developed an interest in mechanical drawing, and even purchased secondhand books and drafting tools in order to practice during his free time.
- Recognizing his effort and promise, Latimer was promoted from an office boy to a draftsman. He was responsible for assisting clients and perfecting drawings, which were paramount to the success of the patent applications.
- Apart from working for the firm, Latimer was able to design a number of his own inventions, such as improving the air conditioning unit and the railroad car bathroom.
- Latimer was directly involved in the discovery of the telephone and incandescent lighting. His brilliant and inventive mind enabled him to work with great inventors of the 19th century, such as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Alva Edison, and Hiram S. Maxim. Apart from showcasing his skills in the invention of the telephone, Latimer also studied electricity and was able to master the new science’s complexities, which led to the discovery of the carbon filament used in light bulbs.
- In 1873, Latimer married Mary Wilson, with whom he had two daughters.
- He was an active member of the Unitarian Church and involved in Civil War Veteran Groups. In his spare time, he wrote poems and plays. Latimer was also a committed art and ESL teacher.