Making Innovations Practical

Thomas Edison is widely known as the most prolific inventor in America’s history. His invention of the light bulb is widely known for lighting America. What is less well known is Edison’s light bulb only lasted for a very short period of time. It was the invention of Lewis Latimer that made the light bulb a practical reality.

Lewis Latimer was the youngest of four children to parents who were escaped slaves. His formal education was limited because he needed to help support his family. At the age of 15, he joined the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. After leaving the Navy, he got a job with a patent law firm as an office assistant. While at the law firm, he learned drafting skills by observing others. He was promoted to drafter after impressing the management of the firm with his skills.

In addition to his drafting skills, Lewis was also an inventor himself. He invented an improvement to bathrooms on trains. He was often a collaborator with inventors who came to the office for patent work. One of his collaborations was with Alexander Graham Bell on the telephone. Without Lewis’ help, Graham would not have received the patent.

Lewis left the patent law firm and took a job as a manager for Edison’s chief rival in electric lighting. While at this new job, Lewis developed a longer-lasting filament that was cheaper than the filament currently in use. Edison’s light bulb only lasted a few days. He received a patent for his invention. He was then asked to manage the production of the filament. He faced tremendous discrimination because workers did not want to be managed by a black man.

Lewis eventually worked with Thomas Edison especially helping Edison protect his patents from infringement. He became an Edison Pioneer – a group that worked closely with Edison on his ideas.

Lewis also continued his own invention career. His most notable invention became the forerunner of the air conditioner. He was also a playwright, an artist, and played the violin and the flute. He was selected to become a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Why is it that the name Lewis Latimer is not as well-known as Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell? His role was critical to these major innovations. But when the 25th anniversary of the light bulb was held, his name was never mentioned. Those who make improvements to the innovations of others are hidden heroes. Without their efforts, the original innovations would quickly fade.

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“There must be vistas flying out beyond, that promise more than present conditions yield.”- Lewis Latimer

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