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No. 158:
Lewis Latimer

Today, we meet an electric lighting pioneer. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A battle is going on in New York City. A pretty 2½-story house in Flushing is scheduled to be torn down. It's one of those nice old gingerbread Victorian affairs. The people fighting its demolition want to see it made into an historic memorial to black scientists and engineers -- and especially to Lewis Latimer, who lived his last twenty years in the house.

Latimer was born in 1848 in Boston. His father had escaped from slavery in Virginia. Latimer went to work doing odd jobs when he was 13. At the age of 15 he joined the Union Navy for the rest of the Civil War. When he was 17 he became an office boy for a firm of patent attorneys.

Latimer had the sort of omnivorous mind that keeps finding things to chew upon. When people in the office weren't looking, he wrote down titles of drafting texts. Then he went off to find cheap copies at used bookstores. He taught himself drafting and was soon making patent drawings for the firm. In fact he made the patent drawings for Alexander Graham Bell's new telephone.

But Latimer wasn't content to draw other people's inventions. In 1879 he went to work for Hiram Maxim at the American Electric Light Company. That was the year of Edison's first light-bulb patent. In 1880 Latimer provided Maxim with an improved incandescent filament. Maxim responded by making Latimer his chief electrical engineer. He put him in charge of installing plants and electrical lighting systems -- both here and in England.

In 1884, after he'd patented several lighting improvements, Latimer was hired away by the man he so greatly admired -- by Thomas Edison. Six years later Latimer published the first book on these wonderful new lights -- titled Incandescent Electric Lighting.

Latimer lived until 1928 -- until he was 80. And he did everything. He wrote poetry and music, he worked for civil rights, he painted, and he taught English to immigrants. At one point, he wrote:

Keep in touch with the world;
The days that are ours,
Are fleeting ...

Not a bad thought. Lewis Latimer is telling us we have to stay in the ring. We have to use our time and abilities. That's certainly what he did. He started out as a boy with nothing but his brain and a fine natural optimism. And he made superb use of them.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Hayden, R.C., Black American Inventors. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Publishing Co., 1972.

A footnote to this episode, which was written in 1988: The old Latimer House was moved to new location and, on October 22, 1998, it was opened as a small science museum which tells Latimer's story.