Let’s shed some light on this subject: Lewis H. Latimer

Light bulbs, they’re everywhere around you, from your home to your cars to the outdoors. Where would we be without them? I wouldn’t think we’d be sitting in the dark, but it would be different.  I’m sure you know that Thomas Edison invented the first “practical incandescent light bulb,” but did you know that there was another man who invented AND patented a process for making carbon filaments for light bulbs, improving Edison’s invention immensely? No? Well then.

Meet Lewis H. Latimer.

Black and white photograph of African American inventor Lewis Latimer.
Photo from MAAP.com (Mapping the African American Past)

Not only did he invent a better filament for the electric light bulb and the process to make it, he also invented a threaded wooden socket for his light bulb. I don’t know about you but every single light source I have in my house uses threaded bulbs. I have a lot of respect for this gentleman.

Latimer was involved with several important inventions’ patents, several of which were his own. He worked for a patent lawyer’s office he was heavily involved in the drafting of the designs for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone! This was before he received his own patent for an electric lamp (called the Maxim electric lamp with Joseph V. Nichols) while working for U.S. Electric Company, one of the rivals to Edison’s company. He also received a patent for an improved carbon filament and it’s manufacturing process, this filament GREATLY improved the lifespan of the light bulb.

Several years later Latimer ended up working for Edison’s company and was the only black man in “Edison’s Pioneers.” He was so knowledgeable about electricity and light bulbs that he literally wrote the book on the subject, “Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.” He was even called as an expert witness during patent trials between Edison and his rivals. Sadly, this testimony diminished his own contribution to the light bulb as his patents were received while at the U.S. Electric Company. company.

Latimer’s lightbulb life-extending carbon filament allowed the electric headlamp to make it onto automobiles. Sure, it isn’t the exact filament used today (they use tungsten filaments now) but it was a huge step forward. It was still within his lifetime that electric headlights become standard, the Cadillac division of General motors added them to their vehicles in 1912.

He may be one of the most important people you’ve never heard of.