Mike Guilfoyle, vice-chair of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, on the life of an inventor and draftsman made the light bulb more practical and contributed to the invention of the first telephone
I read recently that the US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden had claimed that a “Black man had invented the light bulb, not “a White guy named Edison.”
This genuine error was later corrected by the US news channel CNN who then proffered a more historically accurate statement to the effect that – ‘No, a Black man didn’t invent the light bulb. But Lewis Howard Latimer made it better”.
It prompted me to find out just who this inventor was and to my considerable and welcome surprise I discovered that Lewis Howard Latimer, who had made the lightbulb more practical and contributed to the invention of the first telephone, had spent some time living in Lewisham in 1882!
Lewis was born in Massachusetts in 1848 , the youngest child of Rebecca and George Latimer. His father had been a fugitive slave whose eventual emancipation in the 1840’s was a milestone moment in the history of abolitionism.
After spending time in the US Navy during the American Civil War. Lewis without much formal education, entered a patent office where his evident skill and passion as a draughtsman, soon earned him promotion. (His first co-patented invention was for an improved toilet system on the railways!)
He married Mary Lewis in 1873 and the couple had two daughters. In 1876, he was employed by the Scottish-born inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, helping to patent Bell’s newly invented telephone.
Three years later in 1879 he became a draftsman for the US Electric Lighting Company, a company owned by Hiram Maxim, a rival to Thomas Alva Edison (often described as America’s greatest inventor.)
In 1881, Lewis Latimer, along with Joseph Nichols, invented a light bulb with a carbon filament, which was an improvement on Thomas Edison’s original paper filament, which would burn out quickly (around 14 hours!), and sold the patent to the US Electric Company in 1882 *.
He received a second patent on January 17 1882 for the “Process of Manufacturing Carbons”, an improved method for the production of lightbulb carbon filaments. But significantly in the same year, he travelled to London with his wife Mary to help to supervise the installation of Electric Lights throughout the city (including Lewisham).
The first Electric Lighting Act was passed in 1882. The photo of Lewis shown in this post was taken at Mitchell’s Photographic Studio, 133 Lewisham High Street.
Lewis and Mary Latimer attended the Crystal Palace Exhibition Hall, on Saturday, March 4, 1882 where Electrical manufacturers from the US and Europe were displaying their latest designs and inventions.
Incandescence reigned! Mary Latimer wrote in her diary that they “stayed at the Exhibition until I was thoroughly tired out.”
While working at Edison, Lewis wrote the first book on electric lighting, entitled Incandescent Electric Lighting (1890), and supervised the installation of public electric lights throughout New York, Philadelphia and Montreal.
In 1918 he was made a founding member of the prestigious Edison Pioneers (at the time the only African- American among this illustrious body). Lewis Howard Latimer died in Queens, New York, aged 80 in 1928. (Mary Latimer who he described poetically as ‘my Venus shall be my ebony’ predeceased him dying in 1924)
One commentator had these noble words to say on his role as an pioneering inventor:“Lewis Latimer was on a long lasting bulb mission. Luckily he had a vision. Hiram Maxim hired Latimer for his drawing skill. But there was more to Lewis. Lamps enchanted him. This passion for light was lifelong. It’s notable that Latimer’s writings on the topic are as poetic as they are groundbreaking. That’s saying a lot because his carbon filament patent enlightened all. Thus, Lewis Latimer made everyday life brighter with a single patent. He changed the world and made history all at once.”
It is thus heartening to realise that this self-taught inventor, writer and early advocate for civil rights (in one instance taking the stage with the Black female activist Ida B. Wells), a true renaissance man, who deserves to be better known for his historic achievements, in the 1880’s with his wife Mary made Lewisham their home.
This short 2020 You Tube biography of Lewis Latimer is worth watching.
For readers who might be interested to read more about the remarkable life and work of Lewis Latimer this is a link to the museum in New York City named in his honour. https://savingplaces.org/distinctive-destinations/lewis-latimer-house-museum#.X4BWsO3TXIU
Footnote : Magnus Ohren ( 1821-1907) Whose name was long associated with improvements in Gas lighting in the nineteenth century and who worked for the Crystal Palace District Gas Co. also attended the 1882 Crystal Palace Electrical Exhibition.
One can only wonder if he might have exchanged words with Lewis Latimer about the century’s latest inventions had the two crossed paths? Magnus Ohren is buried in Ladywell cemetery.
Lewis was also a friend of the Black Intellectual Richard Theodore Greener, who was the first African American to graduate from Harvard. The name of a Newton Dexter appears on a headstone in Ladywell cemetery. He graduated in 1870 from Harvard University with Richard Theodore Greener!
* Photo courtesy of Erik Huber Photo Archivist Queens Library