What Being Without Electricity for 44 Hours Straight Taught Me about Lewis Howard Latimer
Unsung Black History Maker # 6, Inventor, Draftsman, Poet, and More
One never knows what effect being without electricity during a winter storm will have on the brain. Nor what opportunity it will provide for you to learn something you’ve never known. But now I do.
You see, I live in Texas. And if you’ve watched the news in the last week. Then you know many parts of the state were recently hit with one of those, not in the last “I don’t know how many years ago” type winter storms.
Katy, the city where I live, is one of those parts. At the time I was writing this, our electricity had just been turned back on the night before at 10PM after a long, cold, grueling 44-hour absence.
Thankfully, we have a fireplace and a gas stove. So, during the two days we were without electricity. We were able to huddle around the fire to stay warm. As well as light up the stove to cook our daily rations. It was kinda’ like an unofficial camping trip inside our home. We only needed to retreat to our cars to charge our various cellular devices. Ahem.
But what does all of this have to do with Lewis Howard Latimer and who is he anyway?
Just bear with me. I felt it necessary to set up the context for you and I’m just about done.
Anyway, this morning when I woke up in my cozy warm bedroom. I did 4 things.
- I kissed my husband and bid him off to work with my daily “Have a great day” love smooch.
2. I gave thanks for having made it through what I hoped would be the end of the “gawdawful” rolling electricity outages.
3. I laid in my bed nuzzled under the covers just appreciating the warmth for several minutes. Or maybe an hour. Don’t judge me. Remember I’d been without electricity for 44 hours.
4. I started to think about my own work and what I would write about today.
I then quickly grabbed my phone from my desk/nightstand. And after realizing I had regained temporary internet access. I began my workday right there in my office/warm cozy bed. I immediately thought about this 8-Part Unsung Black History Makers series I’ve been working on. And then oddly (or not so odd considering my recent experience) I thought about electricity. Then voila. Like magic, I knew exactly what to type into my google search bar. See the actual pic below.
And this is how I learned about Lewis Howard Latimer. The Black inventor, electrical pioneer, and son of fugitive slaves. Sharing about his life is part 6 of my Unsung Black History Maker series.
Who is Lewis Howard Latimer?
Lewis Latimer is considered one of the 10 most important Black inventors of all time, not only for the sheer number of inventions created and patents secured but also for the magnitude of importance for is most famous discover. (Black inventor.com)
It seems Lewis Howard Latimer was destined to be a man whose great benefit to mankind would not be confined by the boundaries set by others. In fact, it was in his bloodline being the son of enslaved parents (George and Rebecca Latimer) who themselves escaped from chattel slavery in Virginia in 1842.
This was only six years before Lewis, the youngest of their four children was born. And although their actions later resulted in the family being split up in defiance of the Dred Scott decision. The invaluable lesson Lewis Latimer had learned from his parents by this time, was how to thrive and survive. Period.
At age 15, Lewis “lied about his age in order to enlist in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War.” He was honorably discharged one year later in 1865. His next venture was to return to Boston where he was hired as an office assistant at “the patent law firm Crosby & Gould.”
It is here where Lewis accomplished a feat that not many can boast. Through careful observation of the drafters who worked at the firm. Lewis “…taught himself mechanical drawing and drafting...” skills. He eventually became so good at it, the partners promoted him from office assistant to drafter. And later he became the chief drafter in the firm.
Because his self-taught skills showed such promise and potential in 1876. Lewis Howard Latimer was sought out by a now-famous man, who at the time was working as a teacher for deaf children. His name is Alexander Graham Bell.
Bell was working on a patent for a device for what would later become known as the telephone. He“…wanted Lewis to draft the drawing necessary for a patent application.” And, “With Latimer’s help, Bell won the patent rights to the telephone.”
The Thomas Edison, Hiram Maxim, and Lewis Howard Latimer Connection
In 1880, after relocating to Bridgeport Connecticut, Latimer “was hired as assistant manager and drafter for the U.S. Electric Lighting Co., which was owned by Hiram Maxim. Maxim was the chief competitor of Edison, who had invented the electric light. (Thoughtco.com)
With competition being a bedrock of a capitalistic society. Maxim’s main focus after Edison’s electric light invention was to improve on the weakness of the light bulb. It was known to have a “…brief life span, typically only lasting a few days.”
But Hiram having now personally witnessed the superb draftsman and invention skills of Lewis Howard Latimer had a plan. He believed Lewis was the man to help him improve upon Thomas Edison’s light bulb. And much to Hiram’s expectation, Lewis Howard Latimer rose to the occasion.
“Latimer’s design produced a carbon filament that was more durable and long lasting than earlier filaments. As a result, incandescent light bulbs became affordable to more consumers. Safer than gas lamps, and less harsh than arc lights, incandescent bulbs transformed the average American home after nightfall.” (National Inventors Hall of Fame)
Lewis Howard Latimer’s success resulted in him being a highly sought out man. And for the next 10 years, he helped to install many of the “firsts” electric plants. He lead teams in Philadelphia, New York City and Montreal. He also “oversaw the installation of lighting in railroad stations, government buildings and major thoroughfares in Canada, New England and London.”
“If you can’t beat them join them”, or at least get them to join you. Proverb and Author
In 1890, Thomas Edison sought out Lewis Howard Latimer offering him to work in the legal department of the Edison Electric Light Company (currently General Electric Company) as the “chief draftsman and patent expert”. It was during the years Latimer worked with Edison when he “…became one of the 28 charter members of the Edison Pioneers”.
Thomas Edison also encouraged Latimer to write what is considered “…the worlds most thorough book on electric lighting, “Incandescent Electric Lighting; A Practical Description of the Edison System.”
The Lewis Howard Latimer Inventions You Never Knew, and 4 Interesting Facts about his Life
1. The youngest of four children, Lewis Latimer grew up surrounded by people — women and men, blacks and whites — dedicated to the struggle to end slavery. His father was a respected member of Boston’s abolitionist community; the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, referred to him as “the lion himself.”
2. In 1874 Latimer received his first patent for improving the toilet paper on passenger railroad cars.
3. Latimer’s deep knowledge of both patents and electrical engineering made Latimer an indispensable partner to Edison as he promoted and defended his light bulb design.
4. The Lewis H. Latimer House is owned by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, operated by the Lewis H. Latimer Fund, Inc., and is a member of the Historic House Trust
After many years of working at the Thomas Edison Electric company. Lewis worked a few years as a consultant until his eyesight began to fail. Persuaded by his daughters, Lewis then focused on the other aspects of his life for which he was passionate. This included his involvement with the Unitarian Church, and “other creative pastimes, including playing the flute and writing poetry and plays.” Lewis Howard Latimer died on December 11, 1928.
In an article entitled “The American Contributions of Lewis Howard Latimer” written by 2nd Lt. Carlos Thomas of the 90th Missile Security Forces Squadron at F.E. Warren Air Force Base. He summed up the life of this incredible Black Unsung History Maker well. So well, I will close out with his words.
Latimer was considered a jack of all trades. He was an inventor, draftsman, engineer, author, poet, musician and, at the same time, a devoted family man and philanthropist. He showed many African-Americans that skin color should neve be a dream deterrent and all a dream takes to be fulfilled is belief in one’s self and opportunity. Latimer was an inventor, mentor and motivator to those in his time and ours, and for that we than him.
I agree with Lt. Carlos and am glad I learned about the life of Lewis Howard Latimer. He is definitely an Unsung Black History Maker worth celebrating. If you were not familiar with Lewis Howard Latimer I hope you too have learned something new and enjoyed the read.
Be sure to come back soon to read Part 7of my 8-part series on Unsung Black History Maker.
Until the next time…
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