L is for Lewis Howard Latimer, (1848-1928) an American draftsman, inventor, and poet.
Lewis’s parents were born into slavery, but escaped to live in a free state. His father, George, had difficulties finding work to support his family. He feared that he could be sold back into slavery since he did not have official papers to prove his freedom. Seeing no other choice, he chose to leave his family.
As a child, Lewis showed interest in science and math and did well in school. He was also interested in literature and writing. When Lewis was 16 years old, he joined the Union Navy to help support his mother and siblings. He was discharged four years later and found work as an office boy for a patent law firm. As an office boy, Lewis earned $3 per week.
While working for the law firm, Lewis taught himself mechanical drawing and the art of drawing to scale. For several months, he observed draftsmen, read books on the subject of drafting, and practiced his skill. When Lewis showed the firm what he could do, he was promoted to head draftsman and his pay was increased to $20 per week. As head draftsman, Lewis drew plans for such inventions as a toilet system for railroad cars called the Water Closet, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. The company would eventually close down, leaving Lewis without a job.
In 1880, Lewis found work as chief electrical engineer for Hiram Maxim’s U.S. Electric Lighting Company. There, he helped to further the development of the light bulb. He also supervised the installation and production of Maxim supplies in U.S. cities and abroad. He worked in London and Montreal, and learned French so that he could translate work orders to laborers abroad. When leadership changed at the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, Lewis again found himself without a job.
Four years later, Lewis was hired to work for the Edison Electric Light Company as a patent investigator and expert witness for Edison’s inventions. Lewis worked with the company’s legal department to protect Edison’s inventions from being claimed by outsiders. It was Thomas Edison who encouraged Lewis to write the book Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.
Lewis was also one of 28 charter members (and the only Black member) of the Edison Pioneers.
Lewis served on the Board of Patent Control, but the board abolished in 1911. A patent lawyer offered Lewis a consulting job and he worked there until 1922.
In 1925, Lewis’s children published his poems in a book for his 77th birthday. Here is a poem he wrote about his wife:
Let others boast of maidens fair,
Of eyes of blue and golden hair;
My heart like needles ever true
Turns to the maid of ebon hue.
I love her form of matchless grace,
The dark brown beauty of her face,
Her lips that speak of love’s delight,
Her eyes that gleam as stars at night.
O’er marble Venus let them rage,
Who sets the fashions of the age;
Each to his taste, but as for me,
My Venus shall be ebony.