Lewis Latimer's story actually begins before his birth, with the escape of his parents, George and Rebecca, from slavery in 1842. As Lewis would later recount, Rebecca "determined that she would not be the mother of a slave" and devised a daring plan to escape to the North. Since George was fair-skinned "she induced him to make an effort to escape as her master. With this in view they left Norfolk, Virginia, as master and servant . . . and thus continued until they had reached Boston, Massachusetts."
By the 1840s, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston had become centers of abolitionist activity in the United States, offering safety and assistance to growing numbers of African Americans who had fled their masters in search of freedom. Much of the tension between proslavery and antislavery forces focused on the issue of fugitive slaves. Abolitionists firmly resisted on moral and religious grounds any attempt to return escaped slaves to their masters. Southerners considered such activities "interference," which threatened not only the institution of slavery but their entire way of life.
In Boston, much of the abolitionist activity centered around the efforts of journalists and religious leaders to educate the public about the evils of slavery. Both blacks and whites provided leadership for the struggle, with activists such as William Lloyd Garrison and former-slave Frederick Douglass speaking and writing against slavery. In free black communities, organized resistance to slavery had been in existence since the eighteenth century. But activities reached a turning point in the early nineteenth century, with the launching of several large, visible black political conventions and abolitionist newspapers. Boston abolitionists were prominent in founding the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832 and the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.
Not long after his arrival in Boston, George Latimer was recognized by an agent of his former master, arrested, and imprisoned. When an effort was made to return Latimer to Virginia, Boston abolitionists rallied to action, publicizing his cause as an example of slavery's injustices. Meetings were held throughout Massachusetts on Latimer's behalf, and a new abolitionist newspaper, The Latimer Journal and North Star, was born. Three issues a week provided readers detailed accounts on the progress of George Latimer's case.
In addition to newspapers, the abolitionists promoted their cause through oratory, song, and verse. One prominent abolitionist, Henry Bowditch, prevailed upon his friend John Greenleaf Whittier to write a poem about the Latimer case. Whittier responded with "Massachusetts to Virginia," in which the state of Massachusetts chides the state of Virginia for forgetting the ideals of the founding fathers, vowing there will be "No Fetters in the Bay State! No slave upon her land!"
Ultimately, George Latimer spent one month in jail, during which time public outcry intensified. Finally, after difficult negotiations with the court, abolitionists succeeded in obtaining Latimer's release. A black minister bought his freedom with a payment of $400 to Latimer's master, James B. Gray.
The case had far-reaching impact and did not end with the purchase of Latimer's freedom. Abolitionists vigorously opposed the use of the local jail, constables, and other government officials—all supported by public tax money—to detain fugitive slaves. Petitions were circulated and sent to both the Massachusetts Legislature and the United States Congress. In Massachusetts alone, over 65,000 persons signed these petitions, known as the Latimer or Great Petitions. In 1844, Massachusetts passed a Personal Liberty Act, which made such tax-supported assistance to slave hunters illegal.
In Washington, proslavery forces fought back, winning passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which overrode the Massachusetts Personal Liberty Act. This law denied jury trials to runaway slaves and compelled government officials in all states to assist slave hunters.
The debate over slavery raged on in Washington, with the abolitionist position passionately advocated by figures such as Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. After an exceptionally eloquent speech against slavery, senators from the South were so deeply insulted by Sumner's words that they planned revenge. Preston Brooks, nephew of a South Carolina senator, attacked Sumner with a cane at his desk on the Senate floor, beating Sumner so severely that he was unable to return to the Senate for three and a half years.
The U.S. Supreme Court took up the matter of fugitive slaves in its 1857 Dred Scott Decision, which held that a slave who escaped or was taken to a free state did not become a free man. The ruling added to the insecurity of free blacks everywhere. It must have seemed to the abolitionists that the clock had been turned back, and that the Latimer case had been fought for nothing.
As Rebecca Latimer had so fervently desired, her children were born in a free state. Life was not easy for the Latimer family, however. George had difficulty finding employment, and the family had to struggle to provide for basic needs. Lewis Latimer, George and Rebecca's fourth and youngest child, was born in 1848. When Lewis was twelve years old, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated President. One month later the country entered into civil war.
Like many black families in the North, the Latimer family was willing to fight for the Union cause. Lewis's older brothers, George and William, joined the Union armed forces, and when Lewis turned sixteen, he enlisted in the Union Navy. Serving aboard a side-wheel gunboat, the USS Massasoit, he saw action on the James River in Virginia, not far from Norfolk where his parents had labored as slaves.
Not surprisingly, the Civil War was a defining experience for Lewis Latimer. He believed that the heroism and loyalty demonstrated by African Americans on the battlefield proved to the nation their dignity and merit as equal citizens. In his later life, Latimer became an officer of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans organization. He proudly wore his Grand Army of the Republic jacket on many ceremonial occasions.
After the Civil War, Latimer returned to Boston and sought employment. In his later years Latimer recalled the humble beginnings of his technical career: *
He went from place to place . . . finally a colored girl who took care of the office of some lady copyists. . . was asked to recommend a colored boy as office boy, one 'with a taste for drawing.' [He] got the place at three dollars a week. He believed then that whatever a man knew he had put in a book, so when he saw the [draughts]man making drawings he watched to find out what tools he used, then he went to a second hand book store and got a book on drawing and soon had a set of drawing instruments. He then looked over the draughtsman's shoulder to see how he used his instruments, and practiced with them at home until he felt thoroughly master of them, then one day he asked the draughtsman to let him do some drawing for him, the man laughed at him but finally consented to look at what he could do . . . and to his surprise found that Lewis was a real draughtsman . . . one day the boss saw him at work and was so pleased that he let him work everyday and gradually raised his wages so that from three dollars when he went to work he rose in eleven years to twenty dollars a week.
Technical invention is one form of human creativity, the impulse to improve our material environment.
Contrary to romantic images, scientific invention rarely occurs in a single burst of dramatic insight. Rather, invention is usually a slow incremental process, guided by a mixture of intuition, research, and painstaking work. New things usually develop from old ones, with each inventor's work based on some established premise of the past. Though many inventors may have provided essential contributions along the way, we usually credit just one person with making the critical difference.
Alexander Graham Bell "improved the telegraph" so that it would carry sounds, creating the invention we now call the telephone. His original model used the same instrument as both transmitter and receiver. But when people spoke, they had to shout and repeat themselves in order to be understood.
Thomas Alva Edison "invented a telephone" in order to compete with Bell. Edison's telephone had a separate transmitter and receiver, and it worked better. When the two inventors fought in patent court, Bell won. He then bought Edison's patents (as well as other patents for improvements). Later models of "Bell's" telephone drew upon the work of many others.
A patent is official government recognition that a device or process is considered new and original enough to merit exclusive rights for a period of time. It is up to the inventor to market the invention, and to make claims in patent court against anyone who uses the invention without a license. Patents may be challenged by other inventors who believe they are the ones entitled to the credit. Sometimes many different patents cover seemingly slight differences in a device or process.
Most patents present improvements on existing products rather than completely new ideas. Lewis Latimer specialized in improving existing products to make them work better for the public. His patents and patent drawings reflect a broad scope of inventive activity—ranging from an elevator suspension system, to a disinfecting apparatus for homes and hospitals. He grappled with theoretically challenging problems, such as how to extend electrical communication across bodies of water. His designs for simple household items combine an engineer's drive to increase effectiveness, and an artist's eye for the details of everyday life.
Bell and Edison were born in 1847, Latimer in 1848. Hiram S. Maxim, another famous inventor with whom Lewis Latimer was associated, was born in 1840. The early careers of these four men are remarkably parallel and illustrate the opportunities and resources available to young engineers and inventors in late nineteenth-century America.
Each of these men lacked formal scientific training. Each wanted to achieve financial security through marketable inventions, and each was a careful observer and experimenter. Throughout their adult lives, all four inventors continued to study new subjects, eagerly approaching new opportunities as they arose.
Inventive activity flourished widely in the America of the nineteenth century, but nowhere so vigorously as in the port cities of the East Coast. These cities offered a wide range of resources to support and stimulate the imaginations of technically ambitious men who came to seek their fortunes. There were mechanics' institutes and other "scientific" and "philosophical" organizations offering courses and public lectures; large numbers of interested scientists, artisans, and mechanics who contributed to the intellectual ferment; technical shops where equipment could be repaired or made to order; and European craftsmen who brought "the latest advances." In addition, there was a general sense that technology was "democratic" and embodied a host of American ideals.
In 1879, Lewis Latimer moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut where several other members of the Latimer family had settled. Latimer was surprised to find Bridgeport to be ". . . a perfect hornets' nest of industries. . . . The place is perfectly alive with inventors and it would be next to impossible to throw a stone into any company of men . . . without hitting one," wrote Latimer.
For the young draftsman's career, the move to Bridgeport proved to be pivotal. It was here that he encountered Hiram Maxim, an inventor who was at the time chief engineer in the United States Electric Lighting Company.
Within a week from the time we first met I was installed in Mr. Maxim's office busily following my vocation of mechanical draughtsman, and acquainting myself with every branch of electric incandescent light construction and operation. This was in the fall, in the early spring of the following year, the factory was moved to New York, and I went with it. . . . The Equitable Building, Fish and Hatch, the Union Club and a number of other places were supplied with lamps and the men to run them. These were strenuous times, and we made long hours each day. At the factory by seven in the morning, and after the days work somewhere running lamps until twelve o'clock or later at night.
Latimer's work for U.S. Electric exposed him to many new experiences. He became an expert in the production and installation of electric lighting systems and received several patents for improvements in the process of bulb manufacture. His work took him to Philadelphia and Montreal, where he supervised the installation of some of the first electric lighting, plants in these cities. "I was dispatched to Montreal Canada to fit up the railroad station and yards of Hochelage with incandescent and arc lamps . . ." wrote Latimer. "My day was spent climbing telegraph poles and locating arc lamps on them with the assistance of my laborers who seemed much impressed with my effort to speak their native language."
When Latimer returned to New York, he was asked to go to London, England and establish a factory there. As he later recounted, he was chosen because he was "the only man there who understood every branch of the manufacture." Early in 1882 he and his wife arrived in London, and Mary Latimer began a diary. She recorded her homesickness and daily routine, her love for Lewis, and her observations regarding Lewis's work. In his own recollections of this time, the independent-minded Latimer described frustrations with the English workplace:
To a man who had . . . chumy relations with Hiram Maxim and other great inventors the relations of English bosses and employees were to say the least peculiar. The prevailing motif seemed to be humility of the workman and the attitude that nothing that I can do can repay you for permitting me to earn an honest living. My assistant and myself were in hot water from the first moment to the end of my engagement, and as we were incapable of assuming a humility we could not feel, there was a continual effort to discount us.
In 1882, after completing the London assignment, Latimer returned to the U.S. to find "every avenue closed and the prospect of poverty before him and his wife." He worked for a variety of small electric lighting companies, some of which went out of business. His first child, Emma Jeannette was born in 1883. Obviously, it must have been with considerable enthusiasm that he accepted an offer of employment from the Edison Electric Light Company. Although the date is uncertain, it was no later than 1885.
Ingredients of an Invention:
Once Edison's lighting system was proven successful, his company grew rapidly. Edison's first commercial lamp factory at Menlo Park produced 132,000 incandescent lamps from October, 1880 to April of 1882, after which Edison replaced it with a much larger lamp factory in Harrison, New Jersey.
Generators and bulbs alone were not sufficient to bring incandescent light to the public. To install the Edison system, electric companies needed to string wires, hang fixtures, and devise circuits that could distribute the current economically. Large numbers of workmen had to be trained as the new business expanded rapidly.
While inventors saw technology as the road to fame and fortune, "electricity was changing the way average Americans lived and worked. The first electric plants could serve only single "customers" such as individual buildings, railroad yards, or homes of the wealthy. But in 1882, the advent of the "central-station electrical plant" made it possible to extend service to groups of customers in defined geographic areas.
Electric motors improved the productivity of American workers, usually resulting in higher wages. Electric light also improved productivity and allowed factories to operate round the clock when demand was high.
By 1910, the electrical industry was exploding, powering the growth of the nations urban centers. Electrically driven trolleys made it possible for people to live at a distance from their workplaces and shopping areas. As cities expanded, social and ethnic neighborhoods tended to become more distinct.
Affordable electric household appliances made life more comfortable for the majority of Americans. The rising standard of living also increased the pressure on housewives and wage earners to "improve" their own conditions and conform to new expectations.
Lewis Latimer found many outlets for his talents within the rapidly growing Edison General Electric Company. Shortly after joining the company, he became a member of the engineering department located in the company headquarters at 42 Broad Street, where he remained until 1889. Recalling these years, Latimer gave this description of how prejudice affected him in the workplace:
Now his color began to be a draw back to him. Every new workman who came into the office saw for the first time, a colored man making drawings; and as often as they came to work in the office they tried to pretend that he could not do their work. But he had had such long experience and was so well posted in all kinds of drawing that they soon were forced to acknowledge his exceeding ability which was far above the average at that time.
By 1890 many of the practical problems of developing electrical lighting systems had been solved, and the new technology had fulfilled many of the expectations of industry pioneers.
Latimer turned his attention to writing a book about Edison's power system. Revealing personal feelings about the incandescent lamp to which he had devoted so much of his life, Latimer wrote, "Like the light of the sun, it beautifies all things on which it shines, and is no less welcome in the palace than in the humblest home."
Lewis Latimer subsequently joined the Legal Department of Edison General Electric, where he served as draftsman and patent expert. Competition among electric companies was keen. Edison's patents were frequently challenged in court, with cases dragging on for about ten years. Emotions ran high, and accusations of unethical, even criminal behavior were commonplace.
Latimer served Edison's legal team as patent investigator and expert witness, testifying on Edison's behalf many times. The following quotations give a feeling for the tenor of the patent wars:
—Lewis H. Latimer, 1889: "[Maxim was] exceedingly jealous of anything in the nature of inventive ability being displayed by any of the workmen" (unpublished affidavit, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, collection 1630, box 38, folder 3).
—Edward E Weston, 1893: "I can truly say that I have honestly endeavored to discover the existence of any moral qualities in some electric light companies, and failed to find any. In this particular matter, the course of both parties would bring a blush of shame to the face of an honest man . . ." (Electricity, vol. 4, March 2, 1893, p. 128, "Address to National Electric Light Association").
—Thomas Edison, 1914: "Making things which kill men is against my fiber. I leave that death-dealing work to my friends the Maxim brothers" (The New York Times, October 25, 1914).
In 1896, General Electric and Westinghouse jointly formed the Board of Patent Control. The purpose was to coordinate their patent licensing and avoid further lawsuits. Latimer became its chief draftsman and full-time patent consultant. When the board was dissolved in 1911, Latimer again faced an uncertain future, despite his reputation and considerable skills. Ultimately he joined the firm of an old friend and colleague Edwin Hammer. He remained associated with Hammer as a patent consultant until ill health forced him to retire in 1922 at the age of seventy-four.
The Edison Pioneers were a group of distinguished men who had participated in the early years of the electric light industry. In 1918, Latimer was invited to join the Pioneers as one of the original twenty-eight charter members—all of whom had worked with Thomas Edison prior to 1885. Edwin Hammer and his brother William were also recognized as "Pioneers."
Like all of the Pioneers and many others who worked for Edison, Latimer held the famous inventor in high regard. These poignant stanzas are excerpted from a longer poem that Latimer wrote near the end of their long association.
Who caught the lightning from the skies
And bade it gladden human eyes
To fill the whole world with surprise
Who made the night vie with the day
Who bade the darkness speed away
As willed the world to work or play
If there be those who took their part
To aid him in his work and art
They'r glad they lent both head and heart.
His race is very nearly run
But this great land has since begun
To know the worth of this her son
"I am heart and soul in the movement," began Latimer's passionate 1895 statement calling for equal rights.
During the course of his lifetime, Latimer had witnessed the transition of African Americans from slaves to citizens. Within this context, he strove to create his own life as a positive example of what African Americans could do when given freedom and equality. Latimer believed in racial integration and took an active role in achieving it. He gained recognition in professional and social situations dominated by European Americans, and he valued his membership in organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic and the Edison Pioneers, as measures of how society had progressed.
After purchasing a home in the predominantly white neighborhood of Flushing, Queens in 1903, Latimer worked together with other members of this community to establish a local chapter of the Unitarian church. Undoubtedly, he had been deeply influenced by the activism he witnessed as a youth in Boston, where Unitarians and other organized groups actively sought and achieved social change. In 1906, he volunteered to teach mechanical drawing to poor immigrants at the Henry Street Settlement. Latimer also gave generously of his time and money to many other charitable causes.
Latimer believed that the Constitution of the United States demanded social justice for African Americans. In pursuit of this goal, he associated with many intellectuals and activists of his era, including Frederick Douglass, Bishop Theodore Holly, Booker T. Washington, Samuel Scottron, and other notable African Americans.
Latimer held a long-standing friendship with scholar and diplomat Richard Theodore Greener, the first African American to graduate from Harvard. The two men corresponded over decades, sharing insights that ranged from the personal to the political. In 1895, Greener invited Latimer to participate in the National Conference of Colored Men, which was held in Detroit, Michigan. Unable to attend, Latimer sent an eloquent statement of his civil rights philosophy, which reads in part:
If our cause be made the common cause, and all our claims and demands be founded on justice and humanity, recognizing that we must wrong no man in winning our rights, I have faith to believe that the Nation will respond to our plea for equality before the law, security under the law, and an opportunity . . . to enjoy with our fellow citizens of all races and complexions the blessings guaranteed us under the Constitution, of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Latimer's private life exemplified some of the best ideals of his time: thrift, self-reliance, and self improvement through education. For most of the nineteenth century, many Americans believed that these values would help them improve their social and economic status. People in search of self improvement often gained skills and education at the many settlement houses, mechanics' institutes, and public lectures available at the time. In his early years Latimer had observed that "whatever a man knew, he had put in a book," and so he set about to acquire the books he needed in order to teach himself mechanical drawing. It's not surprising that Latimer went on to become an avid collector of new and used books. His personal library reveals the diversity of his cultural and professional interests and includes many inscribed volumes and first editions.
Latimer considered art and science to be closely related forms of creativity. In his day, a professional was expected to enjoy many cultural pursuits. In keeping with this view, the arts were an important dimension of the Latimer household. Latimer painted, played the flute, and wrote poetry and theatricals. His wife played the guitar, and his daughters were formally trained in music and art. Upon his death in 1928, the Edison Pioneers published an obituary which included the following appraisal:
"He was of the colored race, the only one in our organization, and was one of those to respond to the initial call that led to the formation of the Edison Pioneers, January 24th 1918. Broadmindedness, versatility in the accomplishment of things intellectual and cultural, a linguist, a devoted husband and father, all were characteristic of him, and his genial presence will be missed from our gatherings."