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.”


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