Written and submitted by Bernadette Higgins

Who says you can’t learn anything from watching soap operas? Recently, I binged watched the HBO series “The Gilded Age” and I learned of a man named Lewis Latimer. So I immediately went on Wikipedia and this is what I found out.

Born in the seaside city of Chelsea, Massachusetts, Mr. Latimer was born in 1848 to former slaves who had escaped enslavement into Massachusetts.  When Lewis was 10 years of age, due to the Dred Scott decision, his father needed to leave his family because he could not prove he was legally free from enslavement.  The Latimer family became fractured.

Lewis joined the U.S. Navy in 1864 at the age of 16. After he was honorably discharged, he worked as an office boy in a patent law firm and learned how to use a set square, ruler, and other drafting tools. He did well at the firm becoming a draftsman in 1872. From there he went on to co-patent an improved toilet system for railroad cars, draft the drawings that enabled Alexander Graham Bell to get a patent for Bell’s telephone, develop a forerunner to the air conditioner, and pursue a patent on a safety elevator that prevented riders from falling out and into the shaft.

What got Mr. Latimer a plug on The Gilded Age was his work on perfecting integral parts of the electric light bulb.  Nine days after his 33rd birthday he and another man received a patent for a method of attaching carbon filaments to conducting wires within an electric lamp. A few months later, another patent followed, this one for a modification to the process for making carbon filaments which reduced breakage during the production process.  (Don’t I sound wicked smart?  Kudos to Wikipedia.)

In 1884, the Edison Electric Light Company in NYC hired Latimer as a draftsman and an expert witness in patent litigation on electric lights.  While at Edison, he wrote the first book on electric lighting, “Incandescent Electric Lighting,” and supervised the installation of public lights in several major cities, including New York and London.  He ended his career as a patent consultant to law firms.

Along with a stellar and remarkable career, he was a true Renaissance Man.  He married Mary Wilson Lewis Latimer in 1873 and they had two daughters.  As a patriot and a veteran of the Civil War, he was a proud member of the Grand Army of the Republic and served as a secretary and adjutant.  He wrote a book of poems and various pieces for African American journals, as well as “Incandescent Electric Lighting.” He played the violin and flute, painted portraits, and wrote plays.  Mr. Latimer was a founding member of the Flushing New York Unitarian Church.  He was active in Civil Rights writing about equality, security, and opportunity, as well as teaching English and drafting courses to immigrants in New York.

I was struck by the grace with which a boy from such challenging, sad, and tragic circumstances grew to be a man of such accomplishment, fortitude, and wisdom.  I am glad to know him and thank him for the light by which I write this biography.