Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Lewis Latimer—Like the light of the sun, it beautifies all things on which it shines…

Lewis Latimer, light bulb pioneer 1882

Note:  When I post historical or biographical pieces on this blog it is my custom to do so on the anniversary of an event or the birth or death date of the subject.  This is a hangover from the days I ran a daily almanac feature.  I know longer post almanac entries every day, but when I do, I have generally continued to do so on, or at least near some significant date.  Yesterday when researching for a topic for today’s entry I stumbled on Lewis Latimer while looking something else up.  His story has no connection to today’s date, but it was by far the most interesting one I found and well deserves to be told. 
Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Boston on December 4, 1848.  How that came to be is an epic story in its own right.
His father, George W. Latimer, the son of a White man and enslaved mother, and his wife Rebecca fled from slavery in Virginia by ship.  Traveling north via Baltimore and Philadelphia with prices on their heads and pursued by slave catchers, the young couple arrived in Boston on October 8, 1842.  By mischance Latimer was spotted by a Virginian who recognized him as the slave clerk in James Gray’s Norfolk shop.  He was immediately arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 to be held until his master could claim him.
The case aroused uproar among the growing number of abolitionists in the city.  In fact this became the first time they were roused to public action to protect and free an escaped slave—a landmark in the evolution of the movement.  One attempt was made to storm the jail to free the prisoner.  Later, when an agent for Gary arrived in town, hundreds surrounded the jail to prevent him from being removed.  Historically significant law suits were launched in Latimer’s defense.  Tensions rose between the abolitionists and pro-slavery forces in the city including warring pamphlets and publications.  The Latimer and North Star Journal was a newspaper issued several times a week edited by Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, William F. Channing, and Frederick Cabot.  Public meetings were held, including one at Faneuil Hall where attendees not only vowed resistance to slave-catching but also voted for disunion if Federal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act continued.

Lewis's father George, fugitive slave, 1842,
A Latimer Committee circulated two petitions, the Great Massachusetts Petition and the Great Petition to Congress, about the case.  The former demanded a law banning the involvement of state officials or public property in the detention or arrest of suspected fugitives and was delivered to the State Assembly containing 64,526 signatures and weighing 150 pounds.    
Representative John Quincy Adams laid the Federal petition before Congress where it was immediately tabled and condemned setting off years of conflict between the former President and the Southerners who controlled the House of Representatives.
Eventually, in 1843 Massachusetts adopted the Personal Liberty Act, or Latimer Law based on the demands of the petitions.  The new Federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, among other things, voided the Massachusetts law and similar statutes adopted by other Northern states and compelled local authorities to assist slave catchers.
Meanwhile, the Latimer Committee raised $400 to finally purchase his freedom from Gray.  The Committee would give rise to the organization of the New England Freedom Association and increased collective action in the Black community of Massachusetts.
George Latimer upon gaining his freedom became an active abolitionist himself.  He prospered in the trade of a paper hanger and together with his wife raised four children, the youngest of the Lewis.  In gratitude for the support of the abolitionists who helped secure his freed the family joined and remained active members of a Unitarian congregation from which many supporters had come. 
Lewis, like the other Latimer children, received a good education and literally grew up in the abolitionist movement.  Naturally, when the Civil War broke out, he was eager to serve, but frustrated by his youth.  Finally on September 16, 1863, just days after his 15th birthday, he lied about his age—not that authorities were all that concerned—and enlisted in the Navy.  He served as a Landsman, then the lowest enlisted rank performing common labor aboard the USS Massasoit, a side wheel steam gunboat.  He was on board for anti-raider patrol along the New England Coast and then duty blockade and picket duty off of Virginia ports and on the James River.  In January of 1865 the Massasoit engaged in a dual with shore batteries at Howlett’s House.  Latimer was honorably discharged in July, 1865.
Returning to Boston the 17 year old, perhaps via contacts of his father in the abolitionist movement, was able to secure employment as an office boy with the patent law firm of Crosby Halstead and Gould for $3.00 per week.  While sweeping floors, emptying trash cans, and running errands, Latimer carefully observed the office’s draftsmen preparing patent applications.  He bought his own drafting tools and began practicing at home.  Within a few years he was promoted to draftsman and by 1872 was head draftsman pulling down a respectable $20 a week.  That was still, however, less than the White men he supervised were paid.
On the strength of such prosperity Latimer was able to marry Mary Wilson Lewis of Providence, Rhode Island the next year.  The couple would have two daughters, Emma Jeanette in 1883 and Louise Rebecca in 1890.
Working as a draftsman sparked Latimer’s own interest in invention.  In 1874 he and Charles W. Brown co-patented the Water Closet for Railroad Cars, an improved toilet system for passenger cars.
It was a remarkable achievement and the young man was getting noticed for his skills.  One who took note was a teacher of the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell.  In 1876 Bell had built and used in his laboratory a telephone device.  He knew that others were doing similar work and a race to be first to file a patent was on.  Bell contacted Latimer and the two of them worked together furiously at night after spending their days at their regular employment, to prepare the application which was filed just four hours before Bell’s competition filed.  Latimer testified in the complicated legal challenges to Bell’s patent from his competitors.
After 11 years with Crosby Halstead and Gould, Latimer was ready to strike out on his own.  In 1979 he re-settled his family, including his extended clan of siblings to Bridgeport, Connecticut, then a leading industrial center known for its technological innovation and where the Mayor was showman, liberal reformer, and Universalist P.T. Barnum.  Latimer was hired as assistant manager and draftsman by Hiram Maxim, a rival of Thomas A. Edison for his U.S. Electric Lighting Company.

Although Edison had invented and demonstrated his incandescent light bulb it was still not practical for extended use because the paper filament he used would burn out within hours.  If you watched the bio-flick Edison, The Man with Spencer Tracy you may think that the great man got the idea to char bamboo fiber to create a carbon filament from gazing at his fraying fishing rod.  That would be a mistake.
In 1881 Latimer working for the Maxim company, was the patent for the Process of Manufacturing Carbons that made the light bulb practical.  Edison was irked, but recognized Latimer’s talent.  In 1884 he hired Latimer away for his Edison Electric Light Company in New York City as a draftsman and an expert witness in patent litigation on electric lights.  With Edison, he became a key member of the team working on development of electric lighting.  He made further improvements to the filament and invented or made significant contributions to other essential improvements—the threaded socket; the oven, chemicals, and glassblowing equipment for the glass globe; and a new switch.  In the field he was trusted by Edison to oversee installation of public lighting systems in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London.
Of course, Edison took credit for these innovations.  But he valued Latimer and paid him well, including stock in what became General Electric.  In 1918 he was the only African American selected as one of the 28 charter members of Edison’s Pioneers.
Latimer continued to tinker on his own and filed more patents including one for a locking coat and hat rack to combat the chronic theft of garments from restaurants, barber shops, and other establishments.  He also patented an apparatus for cooling and disinfecting, an early forerunner of air conditioning.

Photo inscribed to his wife in 1919 at age 70.

By the turn of the 20th Century he was if not a truly wealthy man, he was a very comfortable one.  Along with other leading Black intellectuals at the time, he insisted on full equality of opportunity for his race.  He built a large, elegant house in developing Flushing, Queens, an all-White neighborhood.  In 1908 he became a founding member of what is now the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Queens.
He was a man of wide ranging interests.  He played violin and flute, occasionally hosting house concerts with his daughters, He wrote and published a book of poetry and wrote and produced a play.  In his 1890 book Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System Latimer waxed poetic about the achievement, “Like the light of the sun, it beautifies all things on which it shines, and is no less welcome in the palace than in the humblest home.”
Latimer died on December 11, 1928 at the age of 80 mourned in the small circle of his fellow electrical pioneers, in his community, and in his congregation.  The general public scarcely knew of his existence.
His granddaughter, Winifred Latimer Norman, a member of Fourth Universalist Society in New York, became the custodian of his legacy and worked tirelessly to bring his accomplishments to light.  She saw her childhood home moved to a Flushing Park where it stands today as a museum maintained by the National Park Service.  Also in his old neighborhood an apartment complex and a public school are named for him.  At his old congregation, his portrait hangs in place of honor as a founder.  The granddaughter died just last February 6 at the age of 100.

1 comment:

  1. Great story... well done. Hopefully someone else will give Lewis Latimer the recognition he deserves.