Lewis Howard Latimer (1848-1928) applied his creative talents to all aspects of his life in order to improve the condition of his family, his race, and his country. He was an active participant in the dramatic social and technological changes that characterized his era. Before the age of twenty, Latimer had survived the cataclysm of the Civil War and witnessed the birth of a new society—one in which former slaves would become American citizens. Within this context, Latimer strove to create his own life as a positive example of what African Americans could do when given freedom and equality Relying on his own hard work, adaptability and intellectual gifts, Latimer forged a successful career as a draftsman and inventor, as well as a rich private life.
Blueprint for Change is the story of Latimer's remarkable life. It reveals a dramatic period in American history from the perspective of one individual's pursuit of identity, self-improvement, and social betterment.
Lewis Latimer was born in 1848 in the heated abolitionist environment of antebellum Boston. The Latimer family background gives a vivid picture of the challenges faced by fugitive slaves and their children. Lewis's parents, George and Rebecca Latimer, were slaves in Virginia who risked their lives in a daring flight to freedom in 1842. Although the couple arrived safely in Boston, George Latimer was almost immediately arrested and imprisoned. When his former master sought to have him returned to Virginia, his case became a rallying cause for Massachusetts abolitionists. After intensifying public protest and an unproductive dispute in the courts, George Latimer finally gained his freedom, when an abolitionist minister made a payment of $400 to his former master.
Although freedom had been gained, the family's new life in the North was far from easy Young Lewis grew up in poverty and was largely self-educated beyond the fifth grade. As a youth in Boston, he delivered William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. Undoubtedly he saw the many posters warning blacks to be on the lookout for mercenary slave hunters who would capture them and take them “back” to slavery.
Latimer was twelve years old when war broke out between the North and South. His older brothers, George and William, joined the Union armed forces, and when Lewis turned sixteen, he too enlisted. He served aboard the USS Massasoit, a side-wheel gunboat assigned to blockade Confederate ships in the James River. Not surprisingly Latimer was deeply affected by his war experience. He believed the heroism and loyalty demonstrated by blacks on the battlefield had proved to the nation their merit as equal citizens.
Returning to Boston after the war, Latimer put his artistic talent to practical use by teaching himself mechanical drawing. He eventually secured a position at a Boston patent attorney's firm, rising from office boy to chief draftsman, over a period of eleven years. In 1873, Latimer married Mary Wilson Lewis; three months later he received the patent for his first invention. About this time, he also met Alexander Graham Bell. Latimer's journal recounts how the two young men worked together at night to develop diagrams for a patent application for Bell's new invention—the telephone.
The last quarter of the nineteenth century marked the advent of the electrical age. It was a technological revolution that would transform American society, and Latimer was caught up in its vortex. A chance encounter with another inventor, Hiram Maxim, led Latimer to a position with the United States Electric Lighting Company. His work took him from Bridgeport to New York, Montreal, and London where he helped establish some of the earliest electric lighting plants. However, it was the incandescent lamp—one of the most revolutionary inventions of all time—that became the focal point of Latimer's career. He received several patents for improvements in electric lighting, including his 1882 “Process for Manufacturing Carbons,” which contributed to making the carbon filament longer lasting and more marketable. Ultimately he authored a book, Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System. He gave this poetic description of the invention that had consumed so much of his professional life, “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.”
In 1882, the introduction of the “central-station utility plant” by Thomas Alva Edison made it possible to extend electric service to groups of customers in defined geographic areas for the first time. The ensuing rapid expansion of the electric light industry brought profound change to the lives of average Americans. For Latimer, it brought a series of positions within the rapidly growing Edison Electric Light Company where he worked for many years as an engineer and patent investigator. As competition among electric companies intensified, Edison's patents were frequently challenged in court. Latimer's broad experience in the early years of the electric light industry and his knowledge of patent preparation and interpretation made him a valued member of Edison's legal team.
Latimer repeatedly demonstrated his belief in the value of intellectual improvement, hard work, and the reality of American opportunity. His private life exemplified some of the best ideals of his time. An avid reader, he assembled a large personal library He enjoyed the gentlemanly pursuit of art, poetry and music. In 1906, he volunteered to teach mechanical drawing to poor immigrants at the Henry Street Settlement.
Yet, in other aspects of his thinking, Latimer was clearly in the vanguard of his time. He took an active role in achieving racial integration and corresponded with many of the leading black intellectuals of his era, including Frederick Douglass, Bishop Theodore Holly Booker T. Washington, and Richard Theodore Greener. After purchasing a home in the predominantly white neighborhood of Flushing, Queens, Latimer worked together with other members of this community to establish a local chapter of the Unitarian church. He believed that the Constitution of the United States guaranteed social justice for African Americans. In an eloquent affirmation of his civil rights philosophy, Latimer wrote, “It is necessary that we should show the people of this country that we who have by our martyrdom under the lash; by our heroism on the battlefield; by our Christian forbearance beneath an overwhelming burden of injustice; and by our submission to the laws of the native land, proven ourselves worthy citizens of our common country.”
This modest man, who chose to lead by example, left a powerful legacy. Apart from the upper echelons of power, Latimer understood the potent role individuals can play in shaping the course of America—not through dramatic deeds, but through loyalty commitment, talent, and hard work. The resonance between Latimer's personal life and technical career reminds us that our democratic society, not unlike the process of invention, advances by incremental improvement toward the realization of the concept expressed in these words, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Janet M. Schneider