The son of two escaped slaves from Virginia, Lewis Howard Latimer was raised in Massachusetts. Latimer’s father was found by his owner and tried, though he was eventually allowed to purchase his freedom in Massachusetts. However, the outcome of the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford U.S. Supreme Court case, which held that slaves must be freed from the state in which they were enslaved to be free, caused the elder Latimer to fear for his safety. His father fled to protect his family, and Lewis Latimer and his family split up, with the male children living on a farm and his sisters staying with a family friend.
At 16-years-old, Latimer joined the Navy for two years, and after receiving an honorable discharge, he went to work at a patent law firm, eventually becoming a draftsman. In 1873, Latimer married Mary Wilson Lewis; they later had two daughters. A year after his marriage Latimer, co-patented a new toilet system for railroad trains. Two years later, he was hired directly by Alexander Graham Bell to draft the necessary sketches for Bell’s signature invention, the telephone.
In 1879, Latimer moved to Connecticut and worked for the Electric Lighting Company, a firm whose owner was a rival of Thomas Edison. While working there, Latimer improved the process for making carbon filaments. He received a patent for this method in 1882, which allowed companies to develop incandescent lighting that was practical and affordable for everyday use.
He did not stop there, however. He later joined Edison Pioneers, during which time he wrote the first book about incandescent lighting, which was published in 1890. He also developed improvements to air conditioning units, lamp fixtures, and coat racks and received patents for each of these. He continued to work as a draftsman and served as an expert witness on patent litigation in cases concerning electric lighting.
From 1903 to 1928, Latimer and his family had made their home in what is now Flushing Queens. He continued to work on inventions and pursue his passions until he died in 1928. Latimer had been a vocal supporter of civil rights in his spare time. He’d also taught drafting courses to immigrants and even written plays and poetry. After his passing, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, in large part for his groundbreaking accomplishment that remains ubiquitous in our everyday life.