Growing up, Hugh Price heard many stories about his great-granduncle, the inventor Lewis Latimer, who once lived in Bridgeport. But Price didn’t pay much attention to them. “I must confess, I wasn’t terribly interested because I was just a kid. I was interested in baseball,” Price says.
Today, Price, who attended Yale Law School and lived in Connecticut during the 1960s and 1970s, is vice chair of the Lewis Latimer House Museum in Flushing, New York, and is dedicated to telling Latimer’s story. It’s the story of the son of escaped slaves who helped pioneer the modern world while working with far-better-known inventors Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and Hiram Maxim.
Latimer was born in 1848 in Massachusetts and enlisted in the Navy in the early 1860s at the age of 15. After an honorable discharge, he began working for a patent law firm. Latimer became an expert not only in patents, but also in the inventions they dealt with. According to his later writings, he was hired to work for Alexander Graham Bell, and did the drawings for one of Bell’s telephone patents.
A few years later, in 1879, Latimer moved to Bridgeport and lived in Little Liberia, a thriving community of color near Long Island Sound. Though Latimer only lived in Bridgeport for a short time, his sojourn in the city proved fortuitous for both him and electric light. He’d later recall being “at work in a machine shop doing a short job of mechanical drawing, when a stranger came in and expressed himself as delighted to find a draughtsman, as he had for weeks been looking for one to make some Patent Office drawings for him.”
That stranger was the inventor Hiram Stevens Maxim, then chief engineer at the U.S. Electric Lighting Co., a competitor of Edison’s. After being hired by Maxim, Latimer helped improve the light bulb design. “He learned every aspect of electric light design and manufacturing and gave full play to his creative talent,” Bayla Singer writes in the introduction to a collection of essays about Latimer called Blueprint for Change: The Life and Times of Lewis H. Latimer. “Of the numerous inventions Latimer made during his employment with U.S. Electric, three were patented: support for arc lights, an improvement to Maxim’s method of manufacturing filaments for incandescent bulbs, and a new way to attach the carbonized filament to the platinum wires that brought electricity into the bulb from the base.”
Singer adds, “Latimer’s unpatented inventions improved designs for virtually all the other equipment and steps involved in the lamp making process: the oven that baked the filaments; the preparation of phosphoric anhydride (a chemical used for drying the inert gas that filled the bulb and prolonged the filament life); glassblowing equipment to produce bulbs; and a new socket and switch.”
When U.S. Electric moved to New York City in 1880, Latimer moved with the company and frequently went into the field. He helped oversee lighting installations of Maxim equipment in New York, Philadelphia and Montreal. In 1885, Latimer began working for the Edison Electric Light Co. and became a legal expert who would help defend Edison patents against challenges. He also continued to educate the world about electric lighting by writing one of the first works on the topic, Incandescent Electric Lighting, published in 1890.
Throughout Latimer’s life, he also dabbled in other inventions. He patented an improved toilet system for railcars in 1874 and in the 1890s pursued a patent for a safer elevator.
As to why Latimer is not better known for his contributions, Prince says, “It was partly the way business was done back then. When he worked for Hiram Maxim, it was Maxim’s position that staff members who invented things were not supposed to take patent credit for themselves. It was for the greater glory of the company.”
But Price believes his great-granduncle deserves more recognition than he receives today. “What’s interesting about him is the many different skill sets that he had,” Price says. “He was a draftsman whose drawings were works of art; he was that precise. And then he was an inventor of very practical things — the water closet, carbon filament light bulb.”
Latimer was not only a scientist. He excelled in the arts as well, and had a lifelong interest in music and frequently wrote poetry. His poetic sensibilities can be seen even in his technical writing. In his book on electric light, after describing the way electricity for light is best delivered, he takes a moment to describe the quality of illumination itself. “Like the light of the sun, it beautifies all things on which it shines, and is no less welcome in the palace than in the humblest home,” he writes.
A bronze statue of Latimer showing him holding a light bulb stands at the Margaret E. Morton Government Center in Bridgeport’s South End. An inscription on the base calls him “one of the 10 most important Black inventors in U.S. history.”
“When he was in Bridgeport, he delivered a paper to the Bridgeport Scientific Society in which he said that the arts are integral to science, integral to the act of creation,” Price says. He adds that this is a powerful idea in education today, as STEM has been expanded to STEAM to incorporate art. “Lewis Latimer was a forerunner of the whole idea that the arts are integral to science, technology, engineering and math.”