Stories of inventors and their inventions: Lewis Latimer, the inventor who helped make electric lighting practical.

Mar 31, 2020

This article was written by the IP Team of InnoEnergy

We all read stories about the innovators of today and how their products or services make a difference. In this series of publications, we shed light on a side that often remains in the dark and unknown to the public: their patented inventions and the impact they have had on other innovators across society. We did the research and summarised our findings.

Born in Massachusetts in 1848, to parents who had fled slavery, Lewis Howard Latimer is an American inventor and patent draftsman whose name is associated with many famous patents including the patents for the lightbulb and the telephone. The youngest of four siblings, he began his professional career at the early age of 16, when he enlisted and served in the Army for two years, before finding employment at a patent law firm. He taught himself mechanical drawing and drafting and slowly rose to being head draftsman at the firm by 1872. Following this, in 1876, he was employed by Alexander Graham Bell, to draft the drawings that would accompany his patent application for the telephone.

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He was subsequently hired as an assistant manager and patent draftsman for the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, a company owned by Hiram Maxim, a rival of Thomas A. Edison. It was here, in 1881, that Latimer, along with Joseph Nichols, improved on Thomas Edison's original paper filament and invented and patented a light bulb with a carbon filament. This improvement substantially increased the lifetime of the light bulb, making it cheaper and more efficient. He also applied for and received a second patent on the ‘Process of Manufacturing Carbons’, an improved method for the production of lightbulb carbon filaments. 

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     Following this, he went on to work for Edison at The Edison Electric Light Company in New York City. His extensive knowledge and experience with patents and electrical engineering made him a skilled draftsman and an expert witness in patent litigation on electric lights. He successfully defended Edison’s patents against many of the company’s competitors and also authored ‘Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System’, which went on to become the most comprehensive book on electric lighting. Latimer eventually became the only black member of ‘Edison’s Pioneers’—the group of men who had the privilege of working closely with the inventor.

Lewis Latimer went on to work on other significant inventions such as a device that cools and disinfects hospital rooms and a type of safety elevator. He also had his name on other patents such as the first toilet for railroad cars (1874) and an early version of the air conditioner as we know it today (1886).

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The life and experience of Lewis Latimer has secured his position as one of the first major African American inventors. Despite the lack of formal education, his hard work and perseverance led him to play a major role in the development of two of the most indispensable products of today’s world - the telephone and the lightbulb. Even though the light bulbs we use today use filaments of tungsten, which last even longer than carbon, Latimer will always be remembered as the inventor that made significant steps toward making the widespread use of electric light possible, in public and at home. 


The authors of the publications have used publicly available information only and no private information was handed to them by the innovators or third parties.


The IP team at InnoEnergy specializes in combining public sources and state of the art research tools, to provide our innovative member companies with business intelligence. In this case, the following sources were used:

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