For two centuries, the history of this nation was often left incomplete, leaving out the contributions of minorities such as African Americans, women, and Jews. In an effort to complete the story of America, a number of months have been designated as heritage months for these groups. September is Hispanic Heritage month, February is African American History month, and March is Women’s Heritage month, just to name a few. As February comes to a close, it is only fitting that Fossil HD celebrate the contributions of African Americans to our nation’s history. We will do this by highlighting one of America’s foremost inventors, Lewis Latimer.
In 1848, George and Rebecca Latimer became the parents of a son, Lewis Howard Latimer. The couple was living in Chelsea, Massachusetts but were escaped slaves from Virginia. Several years late when Lewis was only a small boy, his father was arrested and tried as a fugitive slave. The judge ordered him to be returned to Virginia to once again be in bondage. The local community raised enough money to purchase freedom for George. The fear of this happening again was so strong, the family went underground. Life underground was extremely hard.
In 1863, during the Civil War, Lewis found his escape from his underground childhood by enlisting in the Union Navy. He was only 15, underage to join the navy. He managed to enlist by forging his birthdate on his birth certificate. He served out his enlistment and then returned to Boston, Massachusetts, where he secured a job with the patent solicitors of Crosby & Gould.
Working for Crosby & Gould, Latimer took advantage of an opportunity to study drafting. He worked his way up and eventually became the head draftsman for the company. The job also opened the door for him to meet some truly gifted and remarkable people. One of those people was Alexander Graham Bell. It was Latimer who drafted the patent drawings for Bell’s invention of the telephone. Bell and Latimer spent long hours and often worked side-by-side into the wee hours of the night. Bell credits this overtime with his ability to beat his competition literally by a few hours to the patent office. If it had not been for the diligence of Latimer, Bell could have lost out on the rights to the telephone.
Later, Latimer secured a job as a draftsman with Hiram S. Maxim, inventor of the Maxim Machine Gun and the founder of the U.S. Electric Light Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. While Latimer had a remarkable talent for drafting, he was also a creative genius. He invented a method of making carbon filaments for the Maxim electric incandescent lamp. By 1881, his renowned talent opened the door for him to supervise the installation of the electric lights in the “city that never sleeps”, New York City. He went on to supervise installations in other cities: Philadelphia, Montreal, and London.
In 1884, Latimer once again changed jobs. He began working for Thomas Edison at Menlo Park. In fact, Latimer was Edison’s original draftsman. The Edison engineering division of the Edison Company employed twenty-four “Edison Principles”. It is interesting to note that Latimer was the only African American of the twenty-four. Edison was suited a number of times by people claiming infringement. Each time, it was Latimer who was the number one witness for Edison’s defense.
In 1890, this son of runaway slaves, had co-authored a book, “Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.”
Not only was Latimer an inventor, a draftsman, and an engineer, and an author, he was much more. It may surprise you to find that he was a poet. One of his more famous poems is entitled “Friends.”
Friend of my childhood,
Of life’s early days
When together we wandered
Through bright sunny ways
Each true to the other,
Till full manhood came,
And found the old friendship
As ever the same.
Came summer and winter,
Years waxed and waned.
Youth it had left us
But friendship remained
And now as with white locks
I bend o’er life’s page,
He was also a musician.
Latimer was also a family man. He married Mary Wilson on December 10, 8173. For his wedding, he also put his skills as a poet to use. He wrote the poem “Ebon Venus” to honor this special occasion. The poem was published later by Latimer in Poems of Love and Life. The couple became the parents of two daughters, Jeanette and Louise.
Let others boast of maidens fair,
Of eyes of blue and golden hair;
My heart like needles ever true
Turns to the maid of ebon hue.
I love her form of matchless grace,
The dark brown beauty of her face,
Her lips that speak of love’s delight,
Her eyes that gleam as stars at night.
O’er marble Venus let them rage,
Who sets the fashions of the age;
Each to his taste, but as for me,
My Venus shall be ebony.
He was also a philanthropist and never forgot where he came from nor that other people have struggles. He was active in the Unitarian Church and taught mechanical engineering, drawing and English to new immigrants at the Henry Street Settlement House.
Latimer was proud of his military service and participated as an officer of the Civil War Veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic.
He also supported civil right activities that took place during his era.
Latimer worked until 1922, when his failing eyesight forced an end to his career. Mary, the love of his life, died in 1924. After that, Latimer’s health began to deteriorate. A year later, his daughters had a book of his poems published in honor of his 77th birthday.
Latimer departed this life on December 11, 1928, leaving behind a legacy of his name being forever associated with two of the most revolutionary inventions of all time: the incandescent electric light bulb and the telephone.