Although Lewis Latimer was born before the Civil War, he was born free, unlike most African-Americans of his day. His father had escaped slavery in Virginia and moved to Boston, where abolitionists purchased his freedom. When Latimer was only ten years old, his father disappeared, leaving him to help support the family by selling copies of an anti-slavery newspaper. After the CivilWar began, Latimer joined the Union Navy as soon as he reached the minimum age. At the end of the war, he found a job with a group of patent lawyers in Boston, starting out as an office boy and soon displaying a natural talent forthe creating the technical drawings that illustrate patents. After buying a set of second-hand drafting tools, Latimer succeeded in getting a promotion and a raise, eventually becoming head draftsman for the firm.
During this time, Latimer met and made friends with Alexander Graham Bell, who was in the process of inventing the telephone. At Bell's request, Latimer illustrated the workings of the telephone's components, and his drawings appeared in the patent Bell obtained in 1876.
When Thomas Edison introduced the incandescent light bulb in 1879, Latimer quickly became interested in this new technology. The next year, he joined Hiram Maxim's United States Electric Lighting Company as a patent draftsman. Thiscompany, the first such enterprise in America, began struggling to compete with Edison for the fast-growing electric lighting market. Central to this struggle was the development of a better filament. In 1881 and 1882, Latimer patented methods for manufacturing superior carbon filaments. With Latimer's inventions, Maxim's electric light bulbs were less expensive to make, and lastedmuch longer. Using Latimer's patents, his employers expanded their businessand began building lighting systems for streets and railroad stations throughout the world. Latimer was responsible for setting up manufacturing plants and installing street lighting in the United States, Canada, and Britain. He also developed a new wiring scheme, using parallel circuits, for street light systems, so that when one lamp went out the others would remain lit.
Then in 1884, Latimer joined the Edison Electric Light Company in New York. After serving as an engineer for six years, he moved to the legal department where, as chief draftsman, he defended Edison's patents in court. Latimer demonstrated great skill not only in illustrating technical concepts, but also intestifying as an expert witness. Around this time, he also wrote and illustrated a pioneering book on incandescent lighting. In 1896, he was appointed tothe Board of Patent Control, which had been set up by the General Electric and Westinghouse companies to oversee patent disputes. Eventually, he became an independent patent consultant. Latimer was the only black member of the Edison Pioneers, an organization of scientists who worked with Edison in the field of electricity. Upon his death, this group commended Latimer for his broad-mindedness, versatility, and genial character.
Lewis Latimer's life was not limited to scientific inventions. He wrote a book of poems, which was published for his seventy-seventh birthday celebration,and he was a talented painter and musician. He also promoted civil rights for black Americans and taught mechanical drawing to immigrants in New York.