Inventing a Better Life: Latimer's Technical Career, 1880-1928

Bayla Singer


Bulb thumbnailLewis Latimer constructed both his personal life and his technical career as concrete examples of his philosophical approach to the place of blacks in American life after the Civil War. Although some African Americans proposed resegregating themselves, and others thought that freedmen's occupational advance should proceed by small steps (and take several generations), Latimer preferred to insist that blacks were full American citizens, and he conducted himself accordingly. Applying his own considerable talent to the opportunities that presented themselves, Latimer chose to position himself as an example to both races of what could be accomplished in a context of racial integration and unhesitating professional aspiration.

In his early career in Boston, Latimer was surrounded by technological communities that subscribed to the American myth that any poor boy could make his fame and fortune through invention and innovation. Contemporary American experience reinforced the dream with the success of Samuel Morse's telegraph, Oliver Evans's automated flour mills, and the triumphs of various American manufacturers at the first "world's fair," the exhibition at London's Crystal Palace in 1851. The Union victory in the Civil War seemed to open the way for African Americans to participate fully in the American dream, and Latimer set his course accordingly.

Latimer began, as he recalled, with "a taste for drawing"1 and became proficient as a draftsman. He also tried his hand at inventing. His first patent was granted in 1874, describing an improved water closet for railway cars.2 Reading the application, a modern observer would probably agree that Latimer's "closed-bottom hopper" would have been preferable to the "open-bottom hopper" in use at the time. As the application notes, the existing apparatus was "neither agreeable to use nor wholly safe, the draft through the hopper being always excessive, while the annoyance from dust, cinders, and other matters thrown up from the track is so great as to forbid or discourage the use of the apparatus except under extreme circumstances." Given the superiority of the new design, and Latimer's own ambitions, it would have been exceedingly strange if Latimer and his colleague had indeed made no effort to market their new device. However, there is no record of any such attempt, and Latimer does not mention it in his autobiographical reminiscences. In Latimer's later years, he recalled that he had made "the drawings for the application for a patent upon the telephone" for Alexander Graham Bell. It is not clear exactly which patent Latimer might be referring to, since Bell received several patents based on applications made in the years 1875-1880, when Latimer might have been of assistance. Bell referred to all of these as "telephone patents."3 Latimer's detailed descriptions of the geographic proximity of his office to the place where Bell was teaching, and of meeting with Bell add credibility to his claim, although no supporting evidence has been found in either the Bell family papers or the patent applications themselves. Latimer's 1911 logbook reads as follows: ". . . at the time of which I write Alexander Graham Bell was teaching . . . in the College of liberal arts . . . and I was obliged to stay at the office until after nine p.m. when he was free from his night classes, to get my instructions from him, as to how I was to make the drawings for the application for a patent upon the telephone."4 Latimer's personal association with Bell just before Bell's spectacular success must have reinforced Latimer's determination to make his own future in technology.

It is appropriate to digress at this point, in order to describe the surviving primary evidence of Latimer's personal and technological activities. By far the greatest quantity of these materials were present in Latimer's last home at 64 Holly Street in Queens, New York. These are now held in the collections of the Queens Borough Public Library and of Dr. Winifred Latimer Norman, Lewis Latimer's granddaughter. In these collections, material of a technical nature falls roughly into two large groups: one group originating in the period 1870-1890 (with a few later items), and the other group from the twentieth century, mostly after 1910. Since Latimer purchased the Holly Street house in 1903, items dated in the 1870s and 1880s probably were intentionally saved by Latimer himself or by his wife Mary. Among these early materials are a large group of drawings signed "L. H. Latimer, Inventor," a number of other drawings, about fifty technical and nontechnical books, and Mary's diary of the first four months of 1882, a time she and Latimer spent in London.

As one might expect, Latimer's home contained loving mementos of his family life and ample evidence of his lifelong activities in the arts, music, and literature. Also among Latimer's effects were letters from African American notables Richard Greener, Victoria Earle Mathews, Booker T. Washington, Samuel Scottron, William Ferris, Frederick Douglass, and Haiti's Bishop James Theodore Holly. There were also warm letters from Latimer's European American professional associates, including his former employer Hiram Maxim, his last employers Edwin Hammer & Elmer Schwarz, and fellow members of the Edison Pioneers E A. Wardlaw and W. R Meadowcroft.

A smaller collection of drawings, dated between 1880 and 1885, is held by the Smithsonian's Department of Electricity and Modern Physics. In addition, materials related to Lewis Latimer can be found in the William J. Hammer Collection at the Smithsonian archives; at the Henry Ford Library and Archives at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan; at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey; and at the Bridgeport Public Library in Connecticut. From all these sources, it is possible to reconstruct at least an outline of the rich tapestry that was Latimer's life.

After leaving Boston, Latimer arrived in Bridgeport, Connecticut shortly after his thirty-first birthday. He immediately set about making himself useful in the technical community of this busy seaport. Although his stay in Bridgeport was brief, it proved to be a turning point in his career.

It is said that fortune favors the prepared mind. While in Boston, Lewis Latimer had prepared himself for a technical career, and in Bridgeport a combination of circumstances led him into the young electrical utility industry as an employee of Hiram Stevens Maxim, then chief engineer at the U.S. Electric Lighting Company. In later years, he recalled his first meeting with Maxim, who later went on to international fame for inventing the fully automatic machine gun:

In 1879 I . . . was at work in a machine shop doing a short job of mechanical drawing, when a stranger came in and expressed himself as delighted to find a draughtsman, as he had for weeks been looking for one to make some Pattent* Office drawings for him, this stranger proved to be Sir Hiram Maxim of gun fame, altho he was up to that time plain Hiram Maxim. He was at this time chief engineer and inventor of the U.S. Electric Lighting Co, and he engaged me there and then to become his draughtsman and private secretary. 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 aquainting myself with every branch of electric incandescent light construction and operation.5

Elevator thumbnailAt about the time Latimer began work at U.S. Electric Lighting (March, 1880), he was elected to membership in Bridgeport's Scientific Society, an organization to which Maxim and other local notables also belonged. In a paper presented to the Society in May, Latimer argued that art and science were closely related; he continued to personify the relationship throughout his life, as his restless creativity found outlet in music, literature, and fine art, as well as in technical inventions.6

The U.S. Electric Lighting Company was only one of Edison's competitors in the race to develop a successful incandescent light. Inventors on both sides of the Atlantic had been working toward this goal since at least 1838, many using elements that were later incorporated into the successful "Edison" light. Thomas Edison himself continued to improve his incandescent bulbs; his electric light patents alone fill three bound volumes. Unfortunately, only one person captures the attention of the public and is hailed as "the" inventor, no matter how much previous work he builds on, nor how much additional work must be done to make the "invention" sufficiently useful and economical for it to become widely acceptable.7

Contrary to popular belief, invention generally proceeds with small steps rather than flashes of dramatic insight. Some of these steps become part of later successful artifacts, many more do not. The Smithsonian's Hammer Collection includes a large number of incandescent bulbs, Latimer's among them, bearing testimony to the inventive activity associated with the light's development. All are important in the overall development of the artifact, although none of the incandescent bulbs designed in the 1880s bear much resemblance (other than general shape) to the light of today.

U.S. Pat. 237,198 thumbnailSeveral officers of the U.S. Electric Lighting Company encouraged the employees to suggest improvements, although Maxim was reportedly hostile to the notion. Latimer took the opportunity wholeheartedly. He learned every aspect of electric light design and manufacturing and gave full play to his creative talent. Of the numerous inventions Latimer made during his employment with U.S. Electric, three were patented: a new support for arc lights, an improvement to Maxim's method of manufacturing filaments for incandescent bulbs, and a new way to attach the carbonized filament to the platinum wires that brought electricity into the bulb from the base. In addition, Latimer's unpatented inventions improved designs for virtually all the other equipment and steps involved in the lampmaking process: the oven that baked the filaments; Phosphoric anhydride thumbnailthe preparation of phosphoric anhydride (a chemical used for drying the inert gas that filled the bulb and prolonged the filament life); glassblowing equipment to produce bulbs; and a new socket and switch.

It is not known, and may never be clear, just how much of Latimer's abundant invention was actually adopted by the U.S. Electric Lighting Company. As Latimer himself later testified, several of the workmen had made suggestions and been paid for them.8 Any single improvement may not have made the crucial difference; taken together, however, the sum of the small developments resulted in a commercially acceptable system.

This stepwise incremental nature of invention and development is part of the foundation for patent suits and priority claims. The fundamental question is, At what stage in this process has the invention (in this case, "the lamp") passed a point at which it has become enough of a new thing to warrant a separate identity? The Smithsonian's Hammer Collection includes, along with various Edison lamps, others credited to Maxim, Edward Weston, St. George Lane-Fox, William E. Sawyer, and Latimer—and many lesser-known inventors as well.9

When the company moved to Brooklyn in 1880, Latimer moved with it and continued to diversify his achievements. In addition to his desk work and shop work, he went out into the field assisting in arc and incandescent installations of Maxim equipment in New York, Philadelphia, and Montreal. In his logbook, he later recalled:

I had qualified myself to take charge of producing the carbons for the lamps, when I was not drawing, and worked through the day helping to make the lamps and at night locateing them in stores and offices.

Electrical measurements had not then been invented and all our work was by guess. Office bell wire was the only kind on the market, and our method of figureing was that it was a good guess that that size wire would carry a certain number of lamps without dangerous heating. A number of misterious fires about this time were probably the fruit of our ignorance. 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.10

He also recalled that his Montreal nights were occupied with learning French, and his days "were 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."11Multicarbon thumbnail His last assignment for U.S. Electric Lighting was in London, to advise the English on setting up a lamp factory. He arrived New Year's Day of January 1882.12 By this time, his mentor Maxim was only minimally associated with the electric business. Although Maxim did meet at least once with Latimer in London, his time and interest were increasingly absorbed in developing the machine gun which brought him his greatest fame.13 Latimer returned to New York later in 1882, but Maxim stayed in London for many years.

Latimer's wife noted in her London diary that "Gus [probably Latimer's assistant], Lew and I went to Crystal Palace, staid until I was thoroughly tired out."14 They probably went to see the electrical exhibition on display there, featuring Edison's incandescent light system. Latimer may even have met William Hammer, the engineer in charge of many of Edison's electric light exhibits. Hammer later included a "Latimer lamp" in his incandescent bulb collection "History of an Art." He also included Latimer in his portrait collection "Eminent Men of Electrical Science." (Hiram Maxim's portrait is conspicuously absent from this collection.)15

The London diary also notes that "Lew is making a fine drawing of an invention of his, of some improvement in elevators and will see if he can get a patent on it. I hope it will be a success, he deserves to be successful for he works and studies all the time. . . ."16 Although the elevator improvement was never patented, Latimer continued to work on it. As late as 1898, Latimer was actively bringing his elevator work to the attention of the Westinghouse, General Electric, and Otis Elevator companies. None of these companies were inclined to pursue the matter. The elevator stands, however, as symbol and evidence of Latimer's continuing pursuit of the American dream of upward mobility via invention.

When Latimer returned to the United States late in 1882, the U.S. Electric Light Company had undergone several corporate changes. Maxim was no longer associated with the company, and Latimer found he had no place in the new organization.17 There is considerable conflicting evidence regarding the dates and firms of Latimer's employment for the next few years. The names of the Weston Company, Olmstead Electric Co., Imperial Electric Light Co., Mather Electric Co., and Acme Electric Light Co. all appear in various biographical and autobiographical accounts prepared more than a decade later. As mentioned above, drawings prepared by Latimer for C. G. Perkins at the Imperial Electric Light Co. during 1884 and 1885 are in the Smithsonian's collection.18

Surviving evidence indicates that the period 1880-1885 was Latimer's most prolific in terms of invention, although he continued this creative activity for the remainder of his professional life. Edison Electric Light thumbnailAbout 1885, Latimer found stable employment with the Edison Electric Light Company of New York (parent company of all the Edison electric utility companies) and related or successor firms. He achieved a respected professional position on the basis of his patent expertise, his encyclopedic knowledge of lamp design and manufacturing, his drafting skills, and his creative intelligence.

From 1885 to about 1924, Latimer worked with essentially the same people, though the names of the departments and their corporate affiliations changed. He entered the Engineering Department of the Edison Electric Light Company and about 1889 was transferred to the Legal Department. When the Edison General Electric Company merged with Thomson-Houston in 1892, Latimer continued to serve in the Legal Department of the newly formed General Electric Company. (After a bitter struggle, Edison's name was dropped, and Edison himself had no more involvement with the company beyond defending his patents.)19 About 1896, Latimer joined the Board of Patent Control, a joint arrangement between General Electric and the Westinghouse Company; and finally, about 1911, began work in the private consulting firm headed by Edwin Hammer (brother of William) and Elmer Schwarz.

On several occasions Latimer testified regarding his observations while working for Edison's competitors. Since Latimer had worked with or been employed by most of the men who challenged Edison's patents, his testimony as to what was going on in their shops was valuable to the Edison cause. One of the biographical sketches, apparently prepared as a letter of reference, states that while in the Legal Department of

"the Edison Company . . . he made drawings for Court exhibits, had charge of the library, inspected infringing plants in various parts of the country, and testified as to facts in a number of cases, without materially encouraging the opposing counsel. He also did considerable searching for which his previous experience, and a moderate knowledge of French and German qualified him, rendering efficient service along these lines in the historical filament case and others of this period, involving basic patents. "20

In 1890, he was selected to revise and thoroughly update a book on incandescent lighting previously published in 1881.21 During these nine years there had been radical advances. The previous author had been William Edward Sawyer, another of the many inventors who challenged Edison's priority in the field of incandescent lighting. Sawyer had done preliminary experimentation with Maxim for several years before the incorporation of the U.S. Electric Lighting Company in 1878, and he remained with the company for a short time before leaving to pursue his own incandescent light designs.22

On one copy of his own work Latimer inscribed, "This was the first book on Electric Lighting published in the United States." Latimer probably felt free to make this claim because of the great changes that had occurred in the field since Sawyer's edition. In 1881, incandescent lighting was limited to a few isolated plants serving no more than a single building. The most ambitious of these had been Edison's installation on the steamship Columbia, which sailed from New York on May 8, 1880, bound for San Francisco.23 By 1890, central-station electric utilities serving whole towns or large areas of cities had become common. Although the court battles over the basic patents were not yet over, in the public mind the Edison system had come to seem utterly synonymous with "electric light." The field of incandescent lighting had been completely remade, and Edison's system was now the only one worth discussing.

Latimer's book combined lucid technical description with a touch of poetry. In describing the mechanics of the light, he wrote,

If the electric current can be forced through a substance that is a poor conductor, it will create a degree of heat in that substance, which will be greater or less according to the quantity of electricity forced through it. Upon this principle of the heating effect of the electrical current, is based the operation of the incandescent lamp . . . Where copper and platinum wires readily conduct the current, the carbon filament offers a great deal of resistance to its passage, and for this reason becomes very hot, in fact is raised to white heat or incandescence, which gives its name to the lamp.24

And in describing the quality of the lamp,

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.25

Latimer's attraction to the beauty and usefulness of the lamp is perhaps a clue to one of the crucial career decisions Latimer may have made. We know that Hiram Maxim had initially hired Latimer on the basis of his drafting skill, and that Latimer and Maxim were both in London at the time when Maxim turned his attention to the machine gun. Maxim recalled, in his autobiography, interviewing candidates in London for the post of draftsman and being exceedingly disappointed in their quality.26 Why, then, do we see Latimer returning to the United States while Maxim remains in London in need of a draftsman?

One factor may have been Mary Latimer's unhappiness; they were a very loving couple, and while her diary shows her wistful musing that, "Lew" was all she really needed in the world, it also records her unsuccessful attempts to fight her homesickness and put forward a cheerful face. For his part, Latimer continuously tried to bring home little surprises and treats for his wife, and in April the couple took a trip to Paris. The diary ends shortly thereafter, so we do not know the eventual outcome.

Latimer may also have felt that he had a better chance at a successful career in the States; he had risen substantially from his first position as office boy and had high hopes of continuing to do so. Latimer also found the English work environment strange: as he later wrote,

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 . . . .27

We know Latimer also felt a keen sense of obligation to his heritage, which he may have considered to be better served by returning to America. Latimer's parents, as runaway slaves, had been assisted by whites as well as blacks. Their case had galvanized the Boston abolitionist community to its first major political activity. Latimer and his brothers had enlisted in the military and served in the Civil War. As with his professional career, Latimer may well have hoped and expected to see continued improvement in the social environment of his native country. We know that he devoted the rest of his life to working for that goal.

Reinforcing these motives, the incandescent electric light held a powerful message for Latimer, as for many others. Here was an invention "no less welcome in the palace than in the humblest home." The lamp embodied the relationship of art and science, and its improvement promised benefits for all classes of society. The electric light was a cause well worth serving. All of Latimer's inventions, patented and unpatented, relate to improving the quality of life: Maxim's automatic machine gun must have been repulsive to him.

While working for the Edison and General Electric companies, and thereafter, Latimer continued to invent at a much reduced rate (his last patent was granted in 1905). Of the drawings found in his Queens home, by far the greater number of those on which he claimed credit as "inventor" are dated prior to 1885, although the home was purchased much later. This is consistent with the speculation that Latimer prized his early work and his vision of himself as an inventor.

Pioneers thumbnailIn 1918, Latimer became a founding member of a rather exclusive social group: the Edison Pioneers. These men were business or technical affiliates, either of Edison's many companies, or of Edison himself. They had all played some part in the development of the electric utility industry; the organizational documents speak vaguely of carrying on the ideals and goals of Thomas Edison, but the primary purpose of the group was probably a mixture of social and professional networking.28

At a time when engineers and technical men saw themselves as the rightful inheritors of political power in the United States, because of their ability to solve practical problems in a "scientific" way29 it is noteworthy that Latimer, an African American, was admitted to the initial group of Pioneers. From Latimer's perspective, membership in the Pioneers probably seemed consonant with his personal efforts to lead by example in constructing a social identity for African Americans.

Situations in which Latimer proved that "a colored man" was capable of highly technical work are a recurrent thread in Latimer's recollections. From Crosby and Gould in Boston, to Maxim in Bridgeport, to the English "bosses" and Latimer's fellow employees in the Edison shops, supervisors as well as coworkers needed convincing. Latimer prevailed repeatedly, and the quality of his work and personality kept him employed through several corporate reorganizations. Later reminiscences by those who knew him professionally portray him as dignified, competent, and friendly. Surviving copies of warm correspondence with professional colleagues reinforce the image of a man moving easily within predominantly European American professional circles. When the professional sphere began to shade into the social, Latimer maintained the place he had earned, while never losing touch with his roots.

GAR thumbnailIn addition to the Edison Pioneers, Latimer treasured his membership in the Grand Army of the Republic, a symbol of his service in the Civil War. He became Adjutant of the George Huntsman post of the GAR in Flushing. Latimer was also a founding member of the Flushing Unitarian Church. While these were integrated, predominantly European American organizations, Latimer was also active on behalf of African Americans both locally and nationally.

Latimer was involved in several local philanthropies, contributing both time and money. He maintained close relationships with well-known African Americans, such as inventor and businessman Samuel Scottron. In 1902 after Scottron was removed from the Brooklyn School Board because of his race, Latimer was an active participant in the ensuing protest. He wrote and circulated a petition, which was then sent to Mayor Seth Low. After the fact, a disappointed Latimer noted the following on a copy: "Notwithstanding the three hundred signatures, no notice was taken of the above, other than a clerical acknowledgement of its receipt."30

Latimer also was concerned with those less famous than Scottron. He generously supported the White Rose Mission, founded by Victoria Earle Mathews to help young black women who had been lured to the city by spurious offers of employment. The Mission offered a safe haven, and training in marketable skills.31 In 1906, Latimer taught mechanical drawing at the Henry Street Settlement House. Although the Settlement House had always been open to blacks, in that year it established a branch primarily to serve the African American community.32

Latimer was well informed about national issues concerning African Americans and was respected by men who had far more formal education. William Ferris, author, public speaker, and Yale graduate, wrote to Latimer in 1913:

My book fell like a bolt from the blue. I have the Booker Washington crowd hors de combat. & in spite of their opposition & the indifference of Dr. DuBois & his friends, I have come across the footlights with the most comprehensive survey & study of the colored race, ever given to the world. And that fact is being testified to by the book reviews. And I thank you for your prompt recognition of my book.

The Providence Journal had a splendid review of the book last week. I shall come down to New York City the latter part of that week & I hope that you will have a brief sketch of your career ready.33

Latimer also maintained a close personal relationship with Richard Greener, the first African American to graduate from Harvard. Greener, a lawyer and political activist, wrote long letters filled with expressions of respect and affection as well as details of African American political affairs. In one informal letter, he reminisced about the exciting days in Boston before the Civil War, adding:

How I should like to see you all! . . . truly you might love a good man. . . . and a noble man, as you are; not exactly ready to be translated, not too good for earthly food, but for all in all, one of the most humanly human fellows I know.34

Latimer's humanity and philosophy, which governed his professional as well as personal life, were expressed in his letter supporting the aims of the National Conference of Colored Men in 1895:

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, by and through maintenance of the law, to enjoy with our fellow citizens of all races and complexions the blessings guaranteed us under the Constitution. . . . 35

Family thumbnailIn his personal life, Latimer again worked within nineteenth-century American ideals. He maintained an advanced amateur's gentlemanly pursuit of music, art, and literature, and he promoted these cultural interests in his family. Latimer's literary efforts included poetry, prose, and plays. In 1900, The Willing Workers Circle presented his "Comedy," which raised over seventy-five dollars.36 Several poems and short prose pieces were published during his lifetime. He received some small fees for these, and the editor of one magazine went so far as to proclaim "Let me tell you, poetry is your 'forte.' Every one of your poetic effusions . . . Not only did they please me individually, but they have taken by storm every one that has read them."37 Latimer sent a poem to Edison, for possible inclusion in a planned Fourth of July commemorative phonograph recording. Edison accepted the poem, and Latimer continued to submit poetry to Edison's West Orange office.38 One of Edison's assistants later wrote:

Dear Latimer:

Your welcome letter came to hand a few days ago, and enclosing some Poetry.

I was very glad to hear from you and it keeps up old times to hear from you [and Joe] and I am very glad to hear that with all the change that has been made that [both] you [and Joe] are still kept and the next time I am in 44 I am going to call in and see you. . . .

The Poetry which you sent me is very good and everyone around the place says you are a good writer. . . .

Yours truly, John E Randolph39

Poetry was not an unusual activity for "technical" men: On the occasion of Lewis and Mary Latimer's fiftieth anniversary, Latimer's employers sent the couple a three-stanza commemorative poem written by Elmer Schwarz, one of the firm's senior partners. The poem was accompanied by a letter signed by all the partners:

It speaks well for both of you that each has put up with the other for so long a time; this statement is directed especially to Mr. Latimer, whose idiosyncrasies we know so well. But we find that during the forty years of his connection with electrical matters he does not appear to have made any but friends of those with whom he has been associated. . . .40

Throughout his life, Latimer pursued his objectives with quiet dignity. The testimony of his career, his colleagues, and his family affirms his high level of success. Perhaps the truest words appeared in the editorial obituary of the Amsterdam News on December 19, 1928:

His work in science was an achievement and his personal life was a work of art.



© Queens Borough Public Library

Title Page Acknowledgments Introduction George Latimer Case Culture of Invention Inventing a Better Life Catalog Checklist Latimer's Patents Edison Papers