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Lewis Latimer

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Lewis Latimer: An Edison Pioneer

On the electrical side, two of the most frequently mentioned African American engineers are Lewis Howard Latimer and Granville T. Woods. Latimer was born the son of escaped slaves in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on 4 September 1848. A self-taught draftsman, he supported himself doing patent drawings while laboring as an independent inventor — he invented a water closet for railroad cars (1873) and an improvement for the incandescent light bulb. In his patent role, he was responsible for preparing the mechanical drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s patent application for his telephone. Thomas Edison took note of his work for Bell and on the light bulb and hired him in 1884. Latimer, in fact, holds the distinction of being the only African American member of the Edison Pioneers, the original engineering division of the Edison Company.


He continued to work on electric lighting, and in 1890 published Incandescent Electric Lighting, a technical engineering book that became the standard guide for lighting engineers. His greatest value to Edison, however, was as an expert witness in the court battles over Edison’s patents. When Latimer died on 11 December 1928, in New York, the Edison Pioneers attributed his “important inventions” — he held eight U.S. patents — to a “keen perception of the potential of the electric light and kindred industries.”


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