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Lewis Latimer


Born: September 4, 1848
Died: December 11, 1928
Birthplace: Chelsea, Massachusetts

Although he is responsible in a large part for the telephone and electric lighting we all take for granted today, Lewis Howard Latimer was much more than one of the first African-American inventors.

Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1848, Lewis was the son of George and Rebecca Latimer, who spent much of their time on the run as escaped slaves.  George had light skin, so he was able to pretend to be a slave owner, with his wife playing the role of his slave.  Latimer was a young man when his father's charade was discovered and George was arrested in Boston.  Such notables as Frederick Douglass and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison protested the injustice, but to no avail.  George Latimer was convicted as a fugitive and ordered back to his owner in Virginia.  If not for the community paying for his release, he would have likely died as a slave.

Even though officially "free," George and Rebecca feared re-enslavement.  He worked in menial jobs to support his family of six, but when the ill winds of potential slavery started to blow again, he left his family and went underground.

Lewis Latimer, the youngest child, attended grammar school and was a wonderful student who loved reading and showed promising art skills.  Once his father fled into the underground, times became very tough.  To help the family, Lewis forged his birth certificate when he was 15 and joined the Union Navy, in which he served honorably throughout the Civil War.

Following the War, Latimer obtained a job in Boston that allowed him to observe draftsmen and learn their trade.  His art background came in handy as he produced beautiful mechanical drawings and eventually was promoted to draftsman.

This is where Latimer met Alexander Graham Bell.  They soon struck up a friendship and Bell paid Latimer to draw up the plans for a little invention he was working on called the telephone.  The team of Latimer and Bell succeeded in the race to file a telephone patent before the competition.

Latimer later worked for the US Electric Lighting Company, where he studied the new field of electric lighting.  Along with supervising the installation of company equipment, such as streetlights in major United States cities, he also met Thomas Edison.

Edison stole Latimer to come work for him, where Lewis played a pivotal role in securing patents and protecting Edison's inventions.  It was Latimer who came up with the carbon fiber element for the incandescent light bulb, replacing Edison's short-life span bamboo element.

Latimer was the only African-American member of the Edison Pioneers, a prestigious group of Edison's inventors. 

Latimer continued to work as a patent consultant in his later years, spending his free time writing poetry, plays, painting and playing the flute. Shortly after his wife's death, his children surprised him by publishing a book of his poetry.  He died in 1928, leaving a legacy of science and the arts that few people have ever surpassed.

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