USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

His invention improved Edison’s electric light bulb, and he executed the patent drawing for Bell’s telephone. Get to know this creative genius!

With his mind frequently in motion as a child, Lewis Howard Latimer — born in 1848 in Chelsea, Massachusetts — loved drawing at an early age and found himself doodling no matter where he would be. Little did he know these pastimes would evolve into a career as a noted draftsman and inventor, and result in him collaborating with two of the most famous innovators of his era.

Lewis, the fourth child of George and Rebecca Latimer, was reared in Boston. His father, an ex-slave, had fled to Boston from a Virginia plantation to escape slavery, and was later granted his freedom before Lewis was born. Shortly after the Civil War broke out, young Lewis at age 16 enlisted in the Union Navy, eager be one of many black soldiers and sailors fighting on the Union side, and emboldened by the hope it brought to end slavery. Receiving an honorable discharge from the Navy in 1865, he returned to civilian life in Boston, earning a modest living as a paperhanger. However, always industrious, he was eager to secure a job in which he could use his creative mind, particularly in drawing. He soon landed a job as an assistant at a Boston patent soliciting firm where he cultivated an interest in drafting. He taught himself the rudiments of drafting in his spare time. While at work, he watched draftsmen in the office, and then went home and practiced his observations, using second-hand instruments and a book on drawing as a guide. His talent as a draftsman would later release his creative power as an inventor.

Why He’s Important: Although Thomas Edison is known as the inventor of the electric light bulb, it was Lewis Latimer (assisted by Latimer’s colleague Joseph Nichols) who in 1881 came up with the method for producing carbon filaments for Edison’s incandescent bulb. This refinement helped these bulbs burn much longer than before, and allowed them to be produced more efficiently and at much less cost. Before this improvement, Edison’s incandescent light bulbs used paper filaments. (Today’s light bulb filaments are made of tungsten, rather than carbon.) Earlier, Lewis had also distinguished himself by conducting the patent drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and assisting Bell in preparing the patent application for that invention. This played a key role in not only helping to finalize the project, but also enabling the patent application to be expedited and submitted ahead of Bell’s competitors.

Other Achievements: Lewis later worked as a chief draftsman and patent expert on Thomas Edison’s staff at the Edison Electric Light Company. As a key staff member, he was the only African American member of Edison’s exclusive research and social group known as “The Edison Pioneers” (also sometimes called “Edison Principles”). In addition, Lewis is also recognized for independent inventions of his own, including: being the first to develop a water closet (restroom/toilet) for railroad passenger cars; inventing a globe supporter for electric lamps; creating an apparatus for cooling and disinfecting (a distant forerunner of the air conditioner), and even inventing a locking rack for hats, coats, and umbrellas. He is co-author of a noted book on electricity published in 1890 called, “Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.”

Education: While his achievements are remarkable, Lewis Latimer received little formal education, being largely self-taught through his own determination and intellectual curiosity. Biographical information on his life indicate the only formal school he attended was Phillips Grammar School in Boston where he was a student as a youngster before enlisting as an adolescent in the Union Navy during the Civil War.

In His Own Words: In addition to his prowess in science, engineering and mathematics, Lewis enjoyed literature, art, poetry, music and philanthropy. Here is an excerpt from a poem he wrote, which can be interpreted, in part, as the passion he held for the joy that the incandescent light bulb brought to humanity: “Like the light of the sun, it beautifies all things on which it shines…” He continued to invent, and to teach his drafting skills until failing eyesight forced him to retire. He died in 1928 in New York City at age 80.

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