Innovators in Energy: Lewis Latimer

In honor of Black History Month, we are celebrating the contributions made by African Americans and other members of the African diaspora in society, industry and history with our Innovators in Energy series.

A talented engineer, draftsman and prolific inventor, Lewis Latimer was born on September 4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. After serving in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, Latimer worked at a patent law firm sketching patent drawings. Recognized for his drawing skills, Latimer was hired by the inventor Alexander Graham Bell to draft the drawing necessary for a patent application of Bell’s famous telephone in February 1876.

In 1880, Latimer was hired as the assistant manager and draftsman for the United States Electric Lighting Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The company’s owner, Hiram Maxim, wanted to improve upon Edison’s electric light bulb, which was invented the year before. Latimer devised a way of encasing the filament within a cardboard envelope. This prevented the carbon from breaking, prolonging the life of the bulb. The new long-life bulb became more economical and energy efficient.

As more major cities began wiring their streets for electric lighting, Latimer was sent to lead the planning teams. He oversaw the installation of lighting in railroad stations, government buildings, and major streets in Canada, London and New England.

On January 24, 1918, Latimer was named one of the 28 charter members—and the only African-American member—of the “Edison Pioneers,” a distinguished group of people who worked to keep the ideals of Thomas Edison alive. The “Edison Pioneers” are deemed responsible for creating the nation’s electric industry. Latimer continued to display his creative talents over the next several years, receiving patents for a variety of inventions including a safety elevator. Latimer died on December 11, 1928, leaving behind a legacy of achievement and leadership.

Please stay tuned for additional Innovators in Energy profiles throughout the month of February.