The African American who enlightened Thomas Edison

Profile history on Lewis H. Latimer, the African-American Renaissance man who in the late 19th century helped not only invent the lightbulb, but also create the electric industry as we know it today.

The light bulb itself was invented by Thomas Edison, but the innovation used to create longer-lasting light bulbs with a carbon filament came from African American inventor Lewis Latimer.

Latimer, the son of formerly enslaved people, began work in a patent law firm after serving in the military for the Union during the Civil War. 

He was recognized for his talent drafting patents and was promoted to head draftsman, where he co-invented an improved bathroom for railroad trains.

Yes, it’s common knowledge that Thomas Edison was the lightbulb’s inventor. And the electric industry won’t let us forget that however, it is easy to forget the man without whom that light bulb would not stay lit for long:

It’s a bit generous to credit all of this to “one man’s vision.” There were competing visions all throughout the 1800s on how to efficiently distribute light, beyond a candle, and on how to power growing urban centers.

Populations in northern American cities began exploding in the closing decades of the 19th century not only because of immigration from Europe but also because of migrating African Americans emancipated from slavery.

Edison gets technical credit for patenting the first “practical incandescent” lightbulb during this time, and also, as the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) reminds us, creating the first electric light power station.

But while Edison got the patent on those, he got there with a lot of help from Latimer, who literally wrote the book on both.

Latimer’s Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System is a bit more deferential to Edison than perhaps necessary.

That was likely a reflection of the times when big ideas couldn’t possibly be ascribed to non-white people, especially when the burgeoning eugenics movement was considered serious science. But Latimer had already been involved in a major invention, having helped Alexander Graham Bell patent the telephone in 1876.

In 1880, Latimer began working for the United States Electric Lighting Company, which was run by Edison’s rival Hiram S. Maxim.

biography on EEI’s site states that while working for Maxim, “Latimer invented and patented a process for making carbon filaments for light bulbs,” and helped install broad-scale lighting systems for New York City, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London.

Latimer holds the patents for the electric lamp, issued in 1881, and for the “process of manufacturing carbons” (the filament used in incandescent light bulbs), issued in 1882. It was roughly 1885 when he finally joined forces with Edison and began improving upon his boss’s invention.

Latimer had no formal training in science, but believed technology and innovation could help advance the plight of African Americans still reeling from slavery. That whole “STEM will save people of color!” Cause is nothing new.

The important thing, though, is that unlike peers like Booker T. Washington, he didn’t believe that simply learning a trade or two would be black people’s ticket to freedom.

He understood how power worked structurally to disenfranchise and disempower black people, immigrants, and the poor in general. This is evidenced in both the prose and poetry he wrote during his time about electricity and society.

“The lamp embodied the relationship of art and science, and its improvement promised benefits for all classes of society,” wrote Bayla Singer, a professor at Rutgers University, in an article on Latimer and his work. “The electric light was a cause well worth serving. All of Latimer’s inventions, patented and unpatented, relate to improving the quality of life.”

His aforementioned book Incandescent Electric Lighting demonstrates an understanding of how the new technology could bring electricity to those who previously couldn’t afford it.

On the electric lamp he wrote, “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.”

And yet his book’s preface notes how this new industry he and Edison were creating was admittedly shifting society from one of independent or localized power to a more centralized version:

Still, we haven’t seen EEI and its members step outside their silos to show support for causes to improve the lives of people of color beyond their electric bills.

Rather, we see them peddling resolutions that appear to be ghostwritten by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group behind controversial policies like “stand your ground” laws, which have been blamed for the death of the unarmed, black teenager Trayvon Martin.

Latimer likely would’ve been disappointed in these stances and alliances. For all of his passion for scientific innovation, he didn’t neglect racial justice. In a letter he wrote in 1895 in support of the National Conference of Colored Men, a “My Brother’s Keeper”-like initiative for that time, Latimer wrote:

If our cause be made the common cause, and all our claims and demands be founded on justice and humanity, recognizing that we must wrong no man in winning our rights, I have faith to believe that the Nation will respond to our plea for equality before the law, security under the law, and an opportunity, by and through maintenance of the law, to enjoy with our fellow citizens of all races and complexions the blessings guaranteed us under the Constitution.

That’s what we’d call true enlightenment.

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