Saturday, May 18, 2024
African American Heritage, Inventors

Lewis H. Latimer, African American Inventor

Three famous inventors – Alexander Graham Bell, Hiram Maxim and Thomas Edison – owe their successes, in part, to a young, African-American inventor who lived on Bridgeport’s South End, among a rich population of Irish, African-American, Hungarian and other ethnic groups.

Lewis Latimer lived on Whiting Street with his family. Listed on the 1880 census as a “mechanical draftsman,” Latimer invented and patented the carbon filament, worked closely with the three pioneers mentioned above, and opened the doors for future inventors.

After serving in the Navy during the Civil War, Latimer began training as a draftsman, eventually becoming a draftsman for Alexander Graham Bell in Boston, and drawing some of the first designs for Bell’s new concept of a telephone.

He left Boston in 1879 and came to Bridgeport to take a job at the U.S. Electric Lighting Company. He worked for Hiram Maxim, the firm’s chief engineer and the man credited with inventing the first portable, fully automatic machine gun, as well as the common mousetrap.

Latimer became immersed with the design and drawing of the incandescent light bulb. In fact, many believe Latimer, not Thomas Edison, to be the actual inventor of the modern light bulb.

Latimer didn’t stay long in Bridgeport, and little is known about his time here. However, it is obvious it was a turning point in his career and his work here was instrumental in developing the light bulb. It’s also known that he was a member of the Bridgeport Scientific Society, which had meetings where prominent scientists and adventurers frequently spoke, and where he presented a paper.

When the U.S. Electric Lighting Company moved to Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1880, Latimer moved there with his wife to continue his own research with a friend. Latimer continued his work in electric lighting, working in New York for the Edison Lighting Company and General Electric Company.

Lewis and his family lived in Flushing, N.Y., where he was a founding member of the community’s Unitarian Church, a member of the veterans group Grand Army of the Republic, and pursued his life-long interest in science and the arts. Lewis Latimer’s house in Flushing is preserved as a museum.

Want to learn more about Lewis H. Latimer?  The Bridgeport History Center has the following materials available:

Bridgeport History Center, Newspaper clipping:Biography, Lewis Latimer

Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation:  Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer and Shelby Davidson, by Rayvon Bouche, 2003.

Lewis Howard Latimer, by Glennette Tilley Turner, 1991

Mary Witkowski
Mary K. Witkowski is the former Bridgeport City Historian and the Department Head of the Bridgeport History Center, Emeritus. She is the author of Bridgeport at Work, and the co-author with Bruce Williams of Bridgeport on the Sound. Mary has had a newspaper column in the Bridgeport News, a blog for the Connecticut Post, and a weekly spot on WICC. She continues to be involved in many community based activities and initiatives on local history and historic preservation.