Your Black History: A Tribute To Lewis Howard Latimer, The Forgotten Innovator

250px-Lewis_latimerBy Victor Trammell

Growing up as child, I was taught in grade school that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

However, having a great mother at home instilled a sense of cultural pride and awareness, which helped me learn what school systems were not willing to teach.

It is accurate to say that black history for me was a year round custom growing up. I consider myself fortunate to have a mother whose roots in the civil rights struggle ran deep. My mother actually co-founded the first Black Student Union at her hometown community college.

One day after school, I showed my mother what a good job I did on a third grade history assignment. She looked at where I answered on the paper that Alexander Graham Bell was the inventor of the telephone. The assignment exercise was marked as correct. However, my mom told me different.

She said that if it were not for a black man, Alexander Graham Bell would not have received so much credit for inventing one of America’s most innovative tools of technology. Today’s Your Black History edition profiles Lewis Howard Latimer, Alexander Graham Bell’s biggest benefactor.

Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on September 4, 1848. His parents George and Rebecca Latimer were former slaves. At the age of 15, Lewis joined the U.S. Navy. When he was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1865, he took a job as an office worker for a patent law firm.

While working in the office of the law firm, Latimer learned how to use a set square, ruler, and protractor. Latimer’s boss noticed his sketches and told him that they were very good. Because of Latimer’s great skills as a artist, he was promoted to draftsman at the patent law firm. Latimer was soon earning eight times the salary he made as a simple office worker.

In 1876, Latimer went to work exclusively for Alexander Graham Bell. At the time, Bell was working on his telephone invention but he needed a skilled draftsman to draw the blueprint needed for a patent. Latimer produced the blueprint and the first patent for the telephone was subsequently issued.

Latimer’s other contributions included upgrading the filament for Thomas Edison’s light bulb.  Latimer used a more efficient carbon filament for the electric light bulb instead of paper. Edison’s paper filament burned out much faster.

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