Queenswalk: The Lewis H. Latimer Story, Part Two – Electricity

    by

    Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Alva Edison, Hiram S. Maxim and Lewis Howard Latimer. These four men were the greatest inventors and innovators of their day. They were all born in the late 1840s, and came into their own as self-educated inventors after the Civil War. They were responsible for two of the most important inventions and innovations of the 19th century: the telephone and incandescent electric light, as well as many other important inventions. But our history books, generally speaking, only celebrate the achievements of Edison and Bell. The life and career of Lewis Latimer is intrinsically interwoven with the achievements of Bell, Maxim and Edison. They would not have been the successes they were had Latimer not worked with them. The fact that he was African American, the son of former slaves, is only the beginning of his story.

    Last time, we met Lewis Howard Latimer. His parents were the property of two different slaveholders in Virginia. They managed to escape north to Boston in the 1840s, where Lewis and his brothers and sister were born. His father, George Latimer, was arrested as a fugitive and was almost taken back into slavery, but Boston’s very activist Abolitionist community rallied around him, both legally and financially, and they were eventually able to buy his freedom. The name “Latimer” was attached to legislation in Massachusetts which essentially forbade tax payer’s money from being used, via the courts and law enforcement, in the capture and return of fugitives. Unfortunately, that was overturned by the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

    Lewis Latimer grew up poor, and was only had a formal fifth grade education before he had to go to work to help support his family. When he was sixteen, he followed his two older brothers into military service during the Civil War. Massachusetts was one of the first states to establish “colored regiments.” These regiments were placed on the front lines of some of the worst fighting in the war, and proved themselves worthy. Lewis enlisted in the Navy, where he saw battle on the James River, near Norfolk, not far from where his parents were once slaves.

    Once the war was over, Latimer hoped that America would see that African Americans wanted nothing more than to have equal opportunities to succeed in the country that many had died defending. He was sorely disappointed. He was a young man, only in his late teens, early 20s, and needed work. He went door to door in Boston’s business district but was turned away by everyone. He finally found out about a possible job in a patent lawyer’s office which was looking for a black office boy and messenger. He got the job that would change his life.

    Part of the work in the office was drafting work, where artists would make the official drawings of the inventions and ideas that a client wanted to have a patent issued for. It was exacting, precise work, as it became part of the legal record, and if necessary, could be referred to if any kinds of patent infringement issues came up. Latimer had a talent for drawing, and was intrigued by the work.

    Although his formal education had ended in the 5th grade, he had spent his years educating himself, and was a voracious reader. He knew he could teach himself drafting. He took some of his earnings and bought a drafting textbook and some used instruments. After work, he would go home and read and practice, until at last, he felt that he knew enough to try a project at work.

    He was well-liked at the office of Crosby & Gould, so when he asked one of the draftsmen if he could take a try at one of his assignments, the man allowed him to do so, although he thought it was a joke. Latimer sat down and proceeded to blow them away with his talent. His experiment was seen by his employers who realized they had talent on their hands, too good to be wasted sweeping up and running errands. After proving himself further, they promoted him to draftsman. Latimer worked at the firm for twelve years. Now making a living wage, Latimer was able to settle down and marry the love of his life, Mary Wilson.

    Bell, Edison, Maxim, Latimer. These men all were self-educated and curious observers of the scientific and technical world. Their great inventions were not their ideas alone, but stemmed from the ability to see a concept like the telephone or incandescent light, and know they could take it from a budding idea, improve on it, and make it ready for manufacturing. As a patent draftsman, Latimer saw many inventions cross his work table. He could see that if the inventor only changed this, modified that, and added this last step, the invention would be so much better. But that was not his job. Unless he could collaborate with someone and have the opportunity to prove what he could see in his mind.

    In 1874, Latimer co-patented a design for a toilet system for railroad cars. It was called the Water Closet for Railroad Cars, and revolutionized passenger travel. You can thank Lewis Latimer the next time you are on Metro North or the LIRR. Today’s systems are based on principals invented by Latimer. In 1876, Latimer took a job at Alexander Graham Bell’s patent law firm. He worked with Bell to draft the drawings necessary for Bell to receive the patent for the telephone. Latimer was able to tweak the plans, improving the design, leading to the first commercially manufactured telephones, and the modern telephone system.

    In 1879, the Latimers moved from Boston to Bridgeport, Connecticut. One of his brothers and his sister had moved there with their families, and encouraged him to move as well, saying that Bridgeport was a city of opportunity. All of the port cities of the East Coast were humming with scientific and technological achievement during this time. Scientific societies abounded, with lectures and classes. Artisans, mechanical engineers and craftsmen were everywhere. There was a heady feeling that technology was blind to everything except success. Latimer would later write that the city was full of inventors; they were so thick, one would not be able to throw a stone without hitting one. He was right at home.

    Latimer began working for a man named Hiram Maxim, an inventor who was the chief engineer for the United States Electric Lighting Company in Bridgeport. They were one of Thomas Edison’s great rivals in the race to make marketable incandescent lighting. Maxim saw a kindred spirit in Latimer, and immediately hired him as a draftsman. They would be working on electrical systems and improvements in electrical lighting. Latimer got a hands-on education on electricity and electrical systems.

    The company moved to New York City soon afterward, and Latimer came with them. There, he spent long hours not just at the drafting table, but helped to design and install some of the first electric systems in the Equitable Building and the Union League Club, among other important buildings. In the course of this experience, he devised ways to improve the systems and the light bulbs used, applying for and receiving several patents for improved incandescent bulb manufacturing. The most important of which was a patent for a means of extending the life of the carbon filaments in the bulbs.

    His job took him to Philadelphia and Montreal, where he supervised the installation of the first electric lighting systems there. In Montreal, his job was to install incandescent and arc lighting systems in several railways stations. He would write that his job called for climbing poles all day helping Canadian workmen install arc lighting systems. He had picked up a working knowledge of French, and impressed the men with his ability to speak their language.

    When he got back from Montreal, Maxim wanted to send him to England to set up a factory there. Latimer was the best person for the job, as he was the only one who knew lighting and its manufacture backwards and forwards. In the early months of 1882, Mr. and Mrs. Latimer arrived in London. The couple missed friends and family, and Mary kept a diary in which she describes daily life, as well as her husband’s trials and tribulations with establishing the factories.

    Latimer found the English caste system frustrating. He had had a congenial and collaborative working relationship with his employer, Hiram Maxim. But in England, the workers had a much less egalitarian relationship with their bosses. He wrote, “The prevailing motif seemed to be humility of the workman and the attitude that nothing that I can do can repay you for permitting me to earn an honest living. My assistant and myself were in hot water from the first moment to the end of my engagement, and as we were incapable of assuming a humility we could not feel, there was a continual effort to discount us.”

    The Latimers came back to America at the end of 1882, the assignment completed. But for some reason not mentioned in the histories, Lewis Latimer was out of a job. A look at Hiram Maxim’s life shows a lot of turmoil in this eccentric and often outrageous inventor’s life. He had affairs, and a second family. He was jealous of other inventors and may have been jealous of Latimer. Maxim and Edison had a very long and bitter court case over the invention of the light bulb, which Edison won.

    The hard feelings never went away. Latimer’s role in improving the bulbs made have been a part of that, and part of the rancor between the men. Maxim would end up emigrating to England, where he eventually became a naturalized citizen, and was knighted. He had scores of inventions, including the invention of a very effective portable machine gun. That one made him a very rich man, and earned him the further scorn of Thomas Edison, who hated war.

    In New York, the Latimers had their first child, a daughter named Emma Jeanette, in 1883. Latimer worked for several small electric companies before being hired by Thomas Edison in 1884. His job was draftsman and expert witness in legal matters pertaining to electric lighting. It was the start of an impressive career and a lifelong friendship. GMAP

    Next time: Latimer’s career with Edison, moving to Flushing, and the family’s life in Queens. Also Latimore’s final years, his legacy, and the establishment of his Flushing home as an important house museum.

    Photo: Living Legacy

    Photo: Living Legacy

    Lewis Howard Latimer as a young man. Photo: Wikipedia

    Lewis Howard Latimer as a young man. Photo: Wikipedia

    The Lewis H. Latimer House, 31-41 137th Street, Flushing. Photo: Historic House Trust of NYC.

    The Lewis H. Latimer House, 31-41 137th Street, Flushing. Photo: Historic House Trust of NYC.

    What's Happening