Unsung Hero: Lewis H. Latimer

You know Alexander Graham Bell. You know Thomas Edison. But chances are you don’t know Lewis Latimer, the Chelsea-born inventor and engineer who helped make those two famous men, well, famous. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston aims to remedy that this month with its free exhibit, “Black Entrepreneurs of the 18th and 19th Centuries.”

Working in a Boston patent office in the 1870s, Latimer labored alongside Bell, drawing blueprints for the telephone and eventually preparing the patent application. Later, Latimer would turn his attention to improving Edison’s light bulbs: He designed the threaded base that is still widely used today, and in 1881 patented a process for manufacturing longer-lasting carbon filaments. (Edison’s bulbs burned out after a few days; Latimer’s lasted months.) Latimer would go on to supervise the installation of the first municipal lighting systems in Montreal, Philadelphia, and New York. “His life was fascinating,” says Ron Robinson, cofounder of the Lewis H. Latimer Society in Chelsea, “because it dealt with so many aspects of the development of this country.”

• During the Civil War, the 16-year-old Latimer—the son of escaped slaves—lied about his age in order to get into the Navy. After the war ended, he returned to Boston and found a $3-a-week job at Crosby & Gould, a well-known patent office.

• Unrelentingly curious, Latimer took an interest in drafting, bought a secondhand set of tools, and taught himself how to draw. Over the next decade, he worked his way to the top of the drafting department (though his $20-a-week salary was still lower than that of some of his white assistants).

• When Bell arrived in Boston with his idea for the telephone, Latimer created the engineering drawings and showed him how to prepare the paperwork. Bell submitted the patent application on February 14, 1876, beating a competitor by mere hours.

• In 1890, while working at the Edison Electric Light Company (later GE), Latimer published the first book on electric lighting. He would become the only African American named one of 28 “Edison Pioneers,” key figures in the development of electricity.