Author Archives: Edison Innovation Foundation

Lewis Latimer – Great Black Inventor and Edison Colleague

In honor of Black History Month, we’d like to shine some light on an invaluable partner of Thomas Edison…Lewis Howard Latimer (1848-1928). Today, Latimer is considered one of the top ten black inventors, up there in stature with the great George Washington Carver. He was a man who never stopped learning and improving himself. 

Latimer was a chief draftsman, patent expert, and inventor. As the son of an escaped slave, Latimer overcame poverty and racism in his scientific career. Similar to Edison, he was self-taught and all of his inventions were related to improving quality of life for others.

Portrait of Lewis H. Latimer, “70 years young.”

Latimer and Edison

Latimer joined Thomas Edison’s lab in 1884, after he had already patented a process for making improved carbon filaments for bulbs.

He served as Edison’s key legal defense agent in his incandescent light patents against many infringers. He was of great importance to Edison finally helping him to gain total recognition as the inventor of incandescent lighting. He would work for Edison until about 1911, when he became an independent patent consultant.

Lewis H. Latimer, second from right, with staff of the “experts’ office,” legal department, General Electric Company.

Latimer also served as an expert witness for Edison, testifying on behalf of the great inventor in many court cases challenging Edison’s electrical system.

In 1924 at the age of 75, he helped form the “Edison Pioneers”, a group dedicated to keeping alive the ideals and aims of Thomas Edison. Latimer was its only African American member.

Edison once said…

Lewis Latimer…A True Renaissance Man

In addition to his scientific and business accomplishments, Latimer was also an active artist and civil rights leader.

Latimer served proudly in the civil war, and continued to advocate for civil rights throughout his life. From protesting the unlawful removal of a black school board member to teaching mechanical drawing classes at the Henry Street Settlement House, he often contributed both time and money to his community.

Latimer also wrote poems, plays and books. In 1889, as an expert electrical engineer, Latimer wrote a highly regarded technical book of its time, “Incandescent Electric Lighting—A Practical Description of the Edison System”. 

Diagram of Latimer’s bulb (1883) and acclaimed book (1889)

In his obituary by the Amsterdam News, it was written that, “His work in science was an achievement and his personal life was a work of art.”


How Trains Inspired Thomas Edison Throughout His Life

Thomas Edison was one of many innovators whose work and patents influenced the electric railways of today. In fact, the mainline railroad tracks that today run past Edison’s historic sit in Menlo Park, NJ site are powered by electric catenary wires.

Edison’s connection with railroads stretches all the way back to his childhood, when he sold newspapers on the Grand Trunk lines in his native Michigan. At 12 years old, this was the first business that Edison started and his first taste of entrepreneurial skills such as time-management, problem-solving, creativity, and resilience.

Thomas Edison printing the Grand Trunk Herald on the train as a child via Rutgers

His work as a newsboy on the railroad actually inspired him to start his invention career with telegraphy. At this time, railroads used telegraphy to circulate news across the country and to regulate train traffic. After being a night operator for the Grand Trunk Railway, Edison created his first real invention – An instrument that could record a Morse Code message on paper tape at regular speed and then play it back at a slower speed so it could be written down. By the time he died, Edison had 150 patents in telegraphy.

When he was older, Edison also became interested in the electric railways as a possible method to make his coal-fired power plants run all day (and thus, more economically), enabling things like electric railways, elevators and motors to run during the daylight hours before electric lighting was needed in the evening. He was also interested in the possible use of short haul electric trains to bring grain to market for wider distribution.

On May 13, 1880, on a U-shaped light rail track, Edison demonstrated his 32 horsepower, motor-dynamo driven train, along a 3/4 mile challenging route. Its top speed was 42 miles per hour. Edison’s trusted laboratory manager, Charles Batchelor, usually manned the helm. His daughter, Marion enjoyed this particular invention and once said, “I was always happy riding on his electric railway”. 

Thomas Edison’s experimental electric railroad on May 13, 1880 via Thomas Edison National Historical Park.

Later, in the Spring of 1882, a larger 3-mile track was developed for use, with four passenger cars and two locomotives. The trucks (or wheels) of the second electric locomotive are on view on the Main Street side of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, as shown below

The trucks of the second commercial electric railroad locomotive, built by Thomas Edison and operated with freight and passenger cars on over three miles of railroad at Menlo Park in 1882 via Thomas Edison National Historical Park.

Edison is not by any means the father of the electric railway, but his improvements did lead to several patents and innovations in the field, like an electrified third rail to power underground systems. He was an early experimenter who had to forego further work in this area as his electric lighting business (Pearl Street Station inaugurated in 1882) required increasing amounts of his attention and management. He sold off his electric railway interests in 1883.

However, Edison’s love of trains stayed with him until his death. Just a month before he passed away, the Lackawanna Railroad inaugurated a suburban DC-based electric train service from Hoboken to Montclair, Dover, and Gladstone in New Jersey. Edison was at the throttle of the first electric multiple-unit train to depart Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken in September 1930, driving the train the first mile through Hoboken yard on its way to South Orange.

Thomas Edison waving as he drives the first electric train on the Lackawanna Railroad via National Park Service Digital Archive.

Thomas Edison had a Tattoo Before It Was Cool

Yes, Thomas Edison had a tattoo. It was an image known as a quincunx-four dots arranged in a square, with a single dot in the middle – the way the number five is portrayed on a dice cube. It was inscribed on his right forearm. The only catch is no one knows how the tattoo got there. There is no mention of it in the vast Edison archives. Did he tattoo himself? We’ll never know.

Thomas Edison had a similar 5 dot tattoo on his forearm.

Edison did not invent the tattoo pen, he did invent the electric pen in 1875 with the assistance of Charles Batchelor. The pen-like shaft had a reciprocating needle that was driven by a small motor powered by a wet-cell battery. As the user wrote or drew on a wax stencil, the needle made thousands of perforations per minute. The stencil was then placed in a press, and a roller forced ink through the holes, creating multiple copies (up to 15,000 according to Edison’s advertisements).

Thomas Edison’s patent (180,857) for the electric pen AKA Autographic printing.

Humans have been decorating their skin for thousands of years, so the idea to use a similar pen to make the process easier seemed natural. The electric pen would later evolve into the tattoo pen invented in 1891 by Samuel O’Reilly. Today’s tattoo pens and guns are much improved, moving the needle anywhere between 50 and 3000 times per minute to deliver the beautiful tattoo designs that many people desire, creating a genre of art known as “body art”.

In fact, more people than you may think have tattoos inspired by Thomas Edison that they love to share on social media. It’s amazing how science and art can come together so beautifully! Below is a gallery of some of our favorite Edison-inspired tattoos:


9 Great Christmas Traditions from Thomas Edison and his Family

While Thomas Edison’s favorite holiday was 4th of July, his wife’s favorite holiday was definitely Christmas. From decorations to parties to private family time, Mina Edison would pull out all the stops to make the holiday really feel special. Keep reading to see how she did just that:

1) An Elaborate, Multi-Course Christmas Dinner

Thomas Edison’s Christmas Dinner Menu from 1891

In 1891, the Edison’s Christmas meal included: Oysters, cosomme, hard-shell crab, good applesauce, potato croquettes, mushroom patties, cucumber salad, ice cream, plum pudding, mince pie, cheese, nuts, raisins, candy and fruit.

2) A Wholesome and Dry Family Celebration

As a staunch Methodist, Mina did not favor the consumption of alcohol. While they did serve some drinks at more formal events, the Edison family didn’t partake.

3) Sharing the Christmas Spirit with Everyone

Edison’s daughter, Madeleine said that “The dining room table used to sit about thirty. There was quite a lot of family…plus a lot of strays that Mother used to pull in, people who didn’t have a place to go.”

4) Changing up the Christmas Decorations Every Year

Holiday decor was Mina Edison’s fortay…from a heavily decorated tree with ornaments and lights to intricate floral designs. In 1915 alone, she ordered 40 wreaths to place around the house.

5) The Christmas Tree in the Den was Always the Main Event

The den Christmas Tree at Thomas Edison’s Glenmont Estate, decorated just as Mina would have done in her lifetime.

Although the decorations changed every year, one thing did remain the same – The grand Christmas Tree in the den. Edison’s son, Theodore, said, “The tree used to be right in the middle, and then all the people would come. Christmas was quite a day here. After dinner, they would all come out here and sit around the tree and distribute presents, you know.”

6) Decorating with Poinsettias from Mina Edison’s Greenhouse

Mina Edison’s passions came together for Christmas pretty seamlessly – Her love for hosting parties and her love for gardening. She’d grow dozens of poinsettias in her greenhouse at Glenmont and then use them all around the house as decorations and favors for guests.

7) Toys for the Edison Children from FAO Shwartz

An original receipt from FAO Shwartz, listing what the Edison children would get for Christmas

What is Christmas without toys for the kids? Balls, racquets, rag dolls and suitcases were just some of the gifts on the Edisons’ wish list.

8) The Edisons Started Christmas Day with Music

The Edison kids would start every Christmas by playing Christmas music on the phonograph in the Second Floor Hall…and then singing carols outside of their parents’ bedroom!

9) Opening Stockings all in Edison’s Bed

Thomas Edison’s mantel and pastel stockings…often filled with Florida oranges!

The most heart-warming Edison tradition of them happened on Christmas morning, before sharing the day with any guests. All of the children would climb into Mina and Thomas Edison’s bed with their pastel-colored stockings to open them together. Often, they would find fresh Florida oranges along with small toys, but it didn’t really matter what was inside. Theodore recalled, “I think by father got very little out of it, because he couldn’t hear our carols and having all those kids climbing all over the place and looking at those presents didn’t mean much to him. But it was wonderful for us.” Sounds pretty wonderful to us!