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14 October 2020

Profile: Howard Latimer

Black History Month 2020
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This week we’re focusing on hidden history and the man that made the modern world possible. This is the story of Lewis Howard Latimer.

Alexander Graham Bell is credited as inventing the telephone, Thomas Edison the electric light. Both inventions have changed the way we’ve lived our lives, but one person connects both inventions and made them possible.

Lewis Howard Latimer was born on the 4th September 1848 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Both his parents had escaped from Virginia where they were enslaved and finding freedom in Boston. His father, George, was considered a fugitive and later jailed, when the judge ruled that Latimer still belonged to his Virginia owner. An African American minister paid $400 for his release.

Latimer’s family could only afford a few years of grammar school, but during this time he developed a keen interest in the arts but especially in drawing. It is this skill that would later be his defining contribution to the modern world.

In 1865, he gained employment as an office boy with a patent law firm, Crosby Halstead and Gould. While draftsmen usually obtained their skills from schooling, Latimer was never offered that opportunity. Instead, he created his own. With used drafting tools and books, Latimer studied at night and during the day he carefully watched as experienced draftsmen around him created detailed technical drawings. After his boss recognised his talent for sketching patent drawings, Latimer was promoted to the position of head draftsman (which would elevate his wages from around $3 a week to $20 a week).

In 1874, Lewis received his first co-patent with Charles M Brown for the ‘water closet for railway car’s’ which was an improved and safer toilet system for the railways — moving from a simple open hole to something more akin to what we would see today.

In 1876 Lewis was hired by Alexander Graham Bell who was working on his telephone invention. There was a race on to file the patent before another inventor did. It was with Latimer’s expertise that led to the patent being filed on the 14th February 1876 — just a few hours before rival Elisha Gray. It’s well known that Bell invented the telephone, and this would not have been possible without Latimer who has largely been forgotten by history.

When the patent law firm closed, Latimer moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to work as a draftsman for the U.S. Electric Lighting Company — a rival to Thomas A. Edison. Latimer absorbed knowledge, and by 1881 had learnt so much about lightbulbs he registered a patent for a light bulb with a carbon filament — an improvement on Edison’s paper filament design which burnt out quickly. Shortly afterwards, he also patented the process for manufacturing the carbons which could be used as filaments for the lightbulb.

In 1884, Latimer was hired by The Edison Electric Light Company where he worked closely with Edison to become his patent investigator and expert witness — his job, to protect Edison’s patent and inventions against imitations.

Edison encouraged Latimer to write his first book ‘Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System’, which was published in 1890. He would also go to become one of the charter members of the Edison’s Pioneers where he was the only African American member of the highly prestigious group. Latimer’s inventing talents weren’t limited to light bulbs - in January 1886, he invented an early air conditioning unit seen as the grandfather of modern systems.

In addition to his drafting skills, Latimer enjoyed other creative pastimes, including playing the flute and writing poetry and plays. In his spare time, he taught mechanical drawing and English to recent immigrants in New York.

Lewis Howard Latimer came from so little at a time in history where he was a second-class citizen, but through his hard work and determination, he managed to rise up and make important advancements in many technologies that we use today. Although not a household name, he truly deserves a place alongside his colleagues for inventions that have shaped the modern world.

Why is this important to us in 2020?

In the UK, and the USA, we’ve tended to have a myopic view of history, writing out elements that don’t fit with the prevalent views. During the pandemic, the meteoric rise into our consciousness of the Black Lives Matter movement has really highlighted how our views of the past play to existing power structures and ideas of race, and not to what really happened.

One of the biggest tools we have to dismantle structural racism is to understand and acknowledge the part we play in learning about and retelling the past. We need to restore the elements that have been omitted from our history. It’s sometimes an uncomfortable process to confront and challenge what we think of as our heritage, but it’s necessary to advance social equality.

This is what many young people are demanding. We must ensure that Black and other ethnicities are represented accurately in our histories. It’s notable that writers and thinkers of colour are particularly under-represented throughout history, with such voices often silenced; even now there are only a few mainstream Black voices. There are still barriers that we must acknowledge and address.

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