Sciencewomen

Diversity in Science: Lewis Latimer

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgDLee has started a new carnival to highlight the contributions of awesome scientists and engineers, with the first one being focused on the contributions of African-American scientists and engineers (it being Black History Month and all).

(By the way, does anyone else think it is supercool to have a Black History Month when we finally have an African American president? I think so. Way cool. We’re watching history being made!)

So. I want to profile someone I just learned about this very week, and who I have already talked about with my first-year students.

So. Have you ever heard of Edison? What did he do again? Oh yeah, he invented the lightbulb, supposedly. But the way we talk about scientists, engineers and inventors is like they’re inventing all alone, the genius in the lab. (Check out what these students say about realizing scientists could look like them, rather than the Einstein model…) Guess what? Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb — a team of people did, some who worked together, and some who were rivals.

Have you ever heard of Lewis Latimer? Find out who he was below the fold.

i-d977033830e054e42d5bda11f93996e5-Lewis_latimer.jpg

Lewis Latimer was a an inventor at the time of Edison, and he worked on inventing the bulb filament. He also was the son of former slaves — his parents George and Rebecca escaped from Virginia to New Jersey, and when their “owner” tracked them down, the legal case ended up being involved in the abolitionist movement.

But Lewis himself joined the army, and upon his discharge he worked in a patent law firm. His skill of sketching patents drew him first to the notice of Alexander Graham Bell, where he helped develop the telephone, and then his subsequent accomplishments (including patents) made Hiram Maxim (one of Edison’s rivals) and eventually Edison (or others in his company) take notice. Latimer worked for the Edison Electric Light Company starting in 1884.

He was married to Mary Wilson, and had two daughters. He was also a poet.

Latimer is listed on several patents, but I’m not sure if he had to list others because of the rules at the time about who could hold patents (not women, for instance). It’s pretty cool to see his signature on them, however.

I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of Lewis Latimer until my colleague used him as an example of how engineers need to know how to work on teams, and how the history of engineering has tended to focus our attention on the work of individuals (and white ones at that). I really like how we can teach our students about both teaming and how the history of race has skewed the national mythology about invention. And I’m glad I get to share it through the new Carnival.

For more about Lewis Latimer (outside of Wikipedia), see:

Comments

  1. #1 DNLee
    February 6, 2009

    This is great. I had heard his name, but never really knew the story. And I love the deeper teaching reference – science & engineering as a team endeavor…it really is.

  2. #2 ScienceWoman
    February 7, 2009

    Awesome. Thanks for sharing — now Minnow will grow up knowing more than Edison when she hears “inventor of the lightbulb.”

  3. #3 ScientistMother
    February 8, 2009

    that is such an awesome example of teaching and team work.

  4. #4 FAW
    February 9, 2009

    Did you also know that light bulbs used to be threaded by hand, mostly by girls? In Eindhoven, where Philips originated, there’s even a statue of a girl threading a light bulb.

  5. #5 Alice
    February 9, 2009
  6. #6 DNLee
    February 24, 2009

    I totally missed it, sorry. I’m sewing it in now, under innovators.

  7. #7 phill
    March 11, 2009

    i find this website to couse me to loose control of my brain now im going to report this website becuzz these are noobs who make these things so get out of my computer you stupid noob!!!