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Lattimer

Lewis Howard Latimer (1848-1928)

The carbon-filament light bulb

Lewis H. Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1848. Along with Granville T. Woods, Latimer was one of the first major African American inventors. He first worked as an assistant to Alexander Graham Bell. Some have claimed that Latimer, not Bell, actually invented the telephone; but this is unlikely, because Latimer often defended Bell's claims to first inventions in court. Later, Latimer became a member of Thomas Edison's elite research team, "Edison's Pioneers." Here Latimer made his most important scientific contributions, by improving the light bulb invented by Edison.

Edison's prototypical light bulb was lit by a glowing, electrified filament made of paper, which unfortunately burnt out rather quickly. Latimer created a light bulb with a filament made of the much more durable carbon. He sold the patent for the "Incandescent Electric Light Bulb with Carbon Filament" to the United States Electric Company in 1881, but did not rest on his laurels. Latimer went on to patent a process for efficiently manufacturing the carbon filament (1882), and developed the now familiar threaded socket (though his was wooden) for his improved bulb. Moreover, Latimer wrote the first book on electric lighting, Incandescent Electric Lighting (1890), and supervised the installation of public electric lights throughout New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London.

Latimer's other patented inventions include such diverse items as the first water closet (i.e., toilet) for railroad cars (1874) and a forerunner of the air conditioner (1886). Although today's light bulbs use filaments of tungsten, which lasts even longer than carbon, Latimer will always be remembered for making possible the widespread use of electric light, in public and at home.

[November 1996]

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