Lewis Latimer: Biography, Inventions & Facts

Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

There were many great inventors throughout history. In this lesson, we will be looking at the life and career of Lewis Latimer, and exploring his role as one of the great inventors in American history.

Lewis Latimer

There are many parts of modern life that we simply take for granted. Electricity would be a great example. We're so used to have things like electric light bulbs that we sometimes forget these things had to be not only invented but made accessible to the average person. Somebody had to do that. Somebody like Lewis Howard Latimer, inventor, engineer, and draftsman of the 19th century.

Lewis Latimer

Early Life

Lewis Howard Latimer was born in 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts as the youngest of four siblings. His parents were former slaves who had escaped from Virginia and made it to the free state of Massachusetts. Lewis' father, George, was actually captured and defended by famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass before being able to formally purchase his freedom.

Haunted by the fear of being recaptured and sold back into slavery, George Latimer later abandoned his family and disappeared around 1857. Lewis worked to earn money for his family, and when the Civil War broke out he answered that call as well. Lying about his age, Lewis enlisted in the US Navy in 1864.

After the Civil War

After leaving the military, Lewis Latimer took a job at a law patent office as an office boy and learned mechanical drafting by watching the other draftsmen. He soon developed a talent for it, and was actually promoted to the position of draftsman himself. In this position, Latimer was exposed to the many new technological ideas that appeared in the post-war boom. He drew up the designs for new machines, and eventually began developing his own inventions that included an early version of the air conditioning unit. Latimer married in 1873 and had two daughters, all while continuing to develop his reputation as a mechanical engineer and draftsman.

Patent by Lewis Latimer of one of his inventions

Major Projects

Throughout his career, Lewis Latimer would find himself involved with a series of very influential projects. His keen skill for drafting and expertise in electrical/mechanical engineering made him a valuable asset to many inventors of the era. One of these inventors was Alexander Graham Bell, who commissioned Latimer to create the blueprints for his 1876 patent of the telephone.

Where Latimer really came to shine, however, was in the field of electrical lighting. In 1880, Latimer took a job with Hiram Maxim, inventor and operator of the United States Electric Lighting Company. With Maxim, Latimer became an expert in the young field of electrical lighting, still a highly debated and new part of American society at the time. He oversaw the United States Electric Lighting Company's installation of electric lighting in Philadelphia and New York, as well as in Montreal and London. He innovated and invented, taking out his own patents for electric light fixtures and more efficient carbon filaments. As Latimer rose to the top of this field, he caught the eye of Maxim's top competitor: Thomas Edison.

Edison offered Latimer a job, and soon struck up a strong professional relationship. While Edison is most often credited with creating the light bulb that lit American cities, Latimer was an indispensible part of this. It was Lewis Latimer who helped Edison draft and file patents on his designs, Latimer who oversaw the company records, and Latimer who took the legal steps necessary to protect Edison's designs from domestic and international patent poachers. In addition, Latimer's technical knowledge helped Edison refine his designs to develop a carbon filament that made electrical lighting affordable and practical for all Americans.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Lewis Latimer:

Timeline Prompt:

Create a timeline to show your students that details the significant events in Lewis Latimer's life and career. If you do not have the exact dates of all of the events, that is ok; just make sure the timeline is in chronological order.

Example: Latimer joined the Navy in 1864, during the Civil War.

Graphic Organizer Prompt:

Make a chart, poster, or some other type of graphic organizer that lists and describes the relationships that Lewis Latimer had with Alexander Graham Bell, Hiram Maxim, and Thomas Edison. You can then display this graphic organizer in your classroom.

Example: While working with Thomas Edison, Latimer performed important tasks like garnering the appropriate patents.

Essay Prompt:

Write an essay of approximately one to two paragraphs that explains how Lewis Latimer made electricity more accessible to Americans and that explains the significance of his induction into the Edison Pioneers. Writing the essay can help you familiarize yourself more with the importance of Latimer's career.

Example: He was the only black person to be inducted into the Edison Pioneers.

Research Project Prompt:

Lewis Latimer's parents had been escaped slaves. Research other former slaves or children of former slaves who have had great impacts on American society. Share your findings in a PowerPoint presentation or essay. Your presentation or essay should provide a short biography of your chosen figure and describe the kinds of contributions they made to American society.

Example: Harriet Tubman risked her life to help other slaves escape their conditions via the Underground Railroad.

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