Black History Month: Celebrating Lewis Latimer
For Black History Month, AIRCARE is celebrating Lewis Latimer, a black pioneer in the air conditioning industry, inventor, writer, teacher, and civil rights advocate.
One of the first men to work in the air conditioning field, in 1886 Latimer developed and received a patent for the forerunner of the air conditioner known as an “Apparatus for cooling and disinfecting.”
Born September 4, 1848, in Chelsea Massachusetts, Latimer was the youngest of four children, his mother Rebecca and father George escaped from slavery in Virginia and fled to Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1842. The day they arrived in Boston, George was recognised by a colleague of his former slave owner, was arrested, and went on trial which received huge publicity. He was eventually able to purchase his freedom and live with his family in Chelsea, Massachusetts.
When Latimer was 10, his mother split the family after the Dred Scott case ruled individual slaves needed to prove they had the consent of their owner to legally become free. This caused Lewis’s father to flee for his family’s safety because he had nothing to prove he was free from enslavement.
At the age of 15, Latimer joined the US Navy and after receiving an honourable discharge went to work as an “office boy” with patent law firm Crosby Halstead and Gould. He learned how to use a set square, ruler, and other drafting tools and when his skills were recognised he was promoted to the position of head draftsman.
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell employed Latimer, then a draftsman at Bell’s patent law firm, to draft the necessary drawings required to receive a patent for Bell’s telephone.
In 1879, Latimer and his wife, Mary, moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut along with his mother, Rebecca, and brother, William. They settled in a neighbourhood called “Little Liberia,” which had been established in the early 19th century by free blacks.
The same year he was hired as assistant manager and draftsman for the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, owned by Hiram Maxim a rival of Thomas Edison. While Latimer was there he invented a modification to the process for making carbon filaments which aimed to reduce breakages during the carbonisation process. He also travelled to England on behalf of the Maxim Light Company where in nine months he taught the entire process for making Maxim lights, including glassblowing to get the factory up and running.
In 1884, he was invited to work with Thomas Edison as a draftsman where he was also responsible for gathering and translating data into German and French and also wrote the first book on electric lighting. On February 11, 1918, Latimer joined the Edison Pioneers, the first person of colour to join the group of 100.
While working with Edison, Latimer developed and received a patent for the forerunner of the air conditioner, his “Apparatus for cooling and disinfecting”.
In 1911, he became a patent consultant to law firms and when the Board of Patent Control dissolved in 1924, he went on to work with Hammer and Schwartz until he retired.
An early advocate of civil rights, in 1895 Latimer wrote a statement in connection with the National Conference of Coloured Men about equality, security, and opportunity. Latimer also taught English and drafting courses to immigrants in New York, played the violin and flute, painted portraits and wrote plays and various articles for African American journals.
He died on December 11, 1928, at the age of 80 and is celebrated for his many inventions and contributions to modern society as well as his advocacy for African American rights and equality.